Building Psychological Safety
Establishing Team Trust, Curiosity And Belonging, While Achieving Great Work
In 1999, I joined Des Penny the CEO & Founder of Proteus Leadership to help run and grow the business. Shortly after, we co-wrote and launched the first culture workshop in Australia titled ‘Creating a Positive Culture’. This workshop was designed to help leaders motivate their teams and kick-start accountability, all within a no-whinge, solutions focused workplace that is robust and resilient.
Since 2000, through our leadership programs and events, I have been helping leaders to ‘destroy dysfunction, kill off toxic people and help their positive people to shine!’ In recent times, we have seen a new requirement emerge for leaders and workplaces and that is the idea of Psychological Safety. Psychological Safety focuses on the need for leaders to create the space for voices and important messages to be heard without retribution.
Building a psychologically safe team and workplace is not only about stopping bad stuff from happening to your people and organisation, but also where growth, innovation, trust, curiosity and belonging are born. Research tells us that people who feel psychologically safe at work will bring the best version of themselves and are fully engaged with what they are doing.
In essence, psychological safety can be described as an environment where individuals and team members feel they can contribute an idea or concern to the group without fear of retribution. However, psychological safety is tricky because it isn’t just based on science and logic. In fact, it is predominantly a feeling or a perception that is quite primal. It really is about how we respond to each other, biologically.
If we don’t feel safe with each other, weird things can happen. This is because our primal brain (the amygdala) overrides our frontal lobe and as a result, selfishness and dysfunction end up ruling. When we do feel safe, the magic of selflessness happens because serotonin and oxytocin are released in our brains, which makes people work together, helps us to socialise and develop a sense of trust and tribal bonding. It’s where people co-operate, do great work and achieve amazing results. As Simon Sinek states in his now famous ‘Leaders Eat Last’ book and TED talk, “It is the selfless chemicals that keep the Circle of Safety strong.”
Think about when you first meet a group of people, say on a new workplace project team. Whether you are conscious of this or not, we immediately scope the room, check and ask ourselves ‘how safe do I feel with these people?’ If we don’t feel safe, we quickly go into self-preservation mode that hinders co-operation and innovation and stops people collaborating.
As a leadership educator and facilitator, my first job in the training room is to make sure I am safe. Yes, I do occasionally get hostile participants who want to take me down! My second and most important job is to make sure the group feels safe. Not to do so will destroy the learning experience and will stop people from being curious, vulnerable, open to new ideas and challenged to change. The same is true for leadership. You need to feel safe and then create the space so your people can operate in a safe environment. This is the heart of what psychological safety is for leaders.
In 2015, Google did a two-year study called ‘Project Aristotle’ to codify what exactly makes their best teams successful. What they ended up discovering was that psychological safety is the most important attribute of a successful team. Prior to Google’s Project Aristotle, researcher Amy Edmondson, a Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard University, who is fast becoming the global guru in this field, first introduced the construct of Psychological Safety and described it as, “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
In Edmondson’s now famous 2014 TEDx talk, (which I highly recommend you watch), she shares her work in high-risk industries using examples of nurses and a co-pilot and their need to challenge their superior in certain dangerous scenarios. Edmondson emphasises that if we don’t feel safe to speak up, we will revert to saying nothing and accepting the status quo. In these high-risk health and airline scenarios however, the consequences are often fatal if it isn’t safe to speak up and take corrective action.
While it is important to have a feeling of safety and to speak up in obvious high-risk industries, it is also just as important in workplaces that on the surface, appear not to be as high risk or to have such high stakes like that of clinical health or piloting. Let me give you some everyday workplace scenarios that I see play out with many of our clients. What you will see in these scenarios, when viewed in the longer-term, is that they can have massive high-risk consequences if you don’t speak up and take action:
• Your new boss is egocentric, displaying signs of narcissism and may be a psychopath!
• You have inherited a toxic staff member that has been protected by management.
• You change jobs where they have a ‘win at all costs’ culture with unethical behaviours and work practices with clients that borderline on illegal.
• You change industries and discover that mediocrity is the norm and high performers are ridiculed, mocked and shunned!
• You accept a more challenging role and quickly realise that you are out of your depth and not ‘competent’ to execute the key project you signed up for.
In the above real life scenarios, you have a choice to make, just like the nurse and the co-pilot: Do you say nothing and accept the status quo, or do you speak up and take action?
Obviously it is critical that we adopt an approach where people speak up and take action. So in these five situations, perhaps you may need to leave your narcissist boss gracefully, deal with that toxic staff member, shine some sunlight on those unethical work practices, create a high performing team with just a few of the right people or fess up to your boss that you may not be able to make it. Whatever you do, do not stay silent and accept the status quo!
There are however many people that do not speak up and challenge what is obviously not right. Edmondson argues that people do this because they succumb to the power of ‘impression management’. Impression management is where we are so concerned about not appearing incompetent or ignorant (a strategy for self-protection that we typically learnt early as a child), whereby we don’t ask questions, admit mistakes, offer ideas or critique status quo.
When we withhold, we “rob ourselves and our colleagues of small moments of learning” and we don’t innovate. “We are so busy managing impression – we don’t contribute to creating a better organisation.”
Edmondson in her TEDx talk suggests three simple things you can do as a leader to foster team psychological safety:
- Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
- Acknowledge your own fallibility (what I would describe as demonstrating ‘vulnerability’ as a leader).
- Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.
To measure a team’s level of psychological safety, Edmondson asked team members in her research, how strongly they agreed or disagreed with these statements:
- If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
- Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
- People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
- It is safe to take a risk on this team.
- It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
- No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.
What is great about asking your team the above questions, is that you will gain people’s insights and these insights can be used as a great launchpad for starting conversations about how safe your team currently feel about working together.
Daniel Coyle, author of ‘The Culture Code’, who is another workplace guru, studied highly successful global teams and discovered that the building of safety is the ‘foundation on which strong culture is built’. Coyle states, “groups succeed not because its members are smarter, but because they are safer.” People have always needed to belong to their tribe and humans are obsessed with the one critical question: “Am I safe here?” When individuals feel that they are safe, they will take healthy risks knowing that the group will support them, because the team feels ‘close, safe and share a future’ together.
As we can see from these global experts, it is critical that we establish workplaces where people are psychologically safe and where they can question without fear of retribution. However from decades of experience, working with thousands of leaders, I believe there are two major threats that are the biggest blockers to having a psychologically safe workplace.
Firstly, there are your psychopaths. If you have a psychopath in your workplace they will destroy trust and any semblance of people feeling psychologically safe. I could write a whole article on the long-term destructive damage that psychopaths will cause (or you could read David Gillespie’s excellent book ‘Taming Toxic People’), however in essence you must extract psychopaths from your workplace, or get yourself out of there fast.
Secondly, it is your underground cynical people, who are consistently negative, that will sabotage the establishment of a psychologically safe workplace. Some people may describe them as ‘passive aggressive’ members of your team, but I would rather call them for what they really are and that is a ‘Saboteur’!
Saboteurs are people who are being both negative and passive and they camouflage this superficially by simply claiming that they are just a follower, but in fact they are ultimately being saboteurs. A saboteur is often more difficult to challenge and change than an overt cynic because a saboteur’s indifferent behaviour is often covert. This makes them quite obstructive and results in leaders and colleagues finding saboteurs very difficult to work with because like a psychopath, they will destroy any attempt to create a space for people to speak up for positive change.
If you want to create a psychologically safe workplace, it starts with you. You are what you do, so start behaving in a way that demonstrates, by being positive and proactive, that it is not only OK, but in fact it is a requirement to speak up and challenge the status quo with positive future actions. By doing this, you will become a Change Activator for positive transformation.
When your intent is to create something better for the future and your approach is both positive and proactive, you are not only a delight to have in the team, but you are infectious because your positive behaviour and attitude becomes viral amongst your colleagues. Change activators are great change agents that bring people with them who accelerate positive change and workplace agility.
As an educator, I know my space is designed to help create great leaders – so a safe place to learn, a place where being vulnerable and being challenged is the norm is incredibly important. It’s the same for me as a leader and a contributing member of the Proteus Leadership team. Having a safe space to learn, a place where being vulnerable and being challenged is the norm, where challenging mediocrity, old school thinking and status quo practices means I can create something great and leave a positive legacy, all while creating a place for growth innovation, trust and curiosity and belonging for the team.
So, go ahead and embrace this new leadership challenge of establishing psychologically safe workplaces. Create a safe place to speak up, where you can give your best efforts and be part of a special group that has high standards, knowing that together, you can create something amazing. It is a much better world to live and work in.
As Daniel Coyle states, and one of the reasons why I wrote this important article, “I’m giving you these comments because I have high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”
By Richard Dore
Managing Director of Proteus Leadership.
Proteus Leadership is one of Australia’s premier leadership training and development companies. Proteus Leadership provides leadership courses and management training to a range of industries and assists organisations to build positive workplace cultures, implement change and Create Great Leaders. Proteus also facilitates a range of world-class management courses, workshops, conferences and events across Australia and beyond with the sole purpose of bringing leaders together to connect and grow.
“Our core purpose is to Create Great Leaders that will in turn build Great companies and develop Great teams.”