Psychological Safety for High Performance Teams

Have you ever worked in an environment where you or others held back from speaking up? Held back from sharing ideas? Held back from speaking up when you could clearly see things are going wrong? Held back from admitting a mistake? Or held back from asking a question? You are likely to have experienced a lack of psychological safety.

In a culture where there is a lack of psychological safety, people are often afraid to speak up, present ideas or challenge the status quo. In situations where it is about life or death, like the operating theatre or on an aircraft, this can be detrimental to the safety of humans. In the corporate work world it impacts the team’s performance and hits the bottom line.

‘Low levels of psychological safety can create a culture of silence. They can also create a Cassandra culture – an environment in which speaking up is belittled and warnings go unheeded. – Amy C. Edmondson

I worked in an organisation in Hong Kong a few years back where bullying, ego, gossiping and unhealthy competition for being popular was the norm. It was truly a Cassandra culture. And whilst this was the most extreme toxic culture I have ever worked in and I have not seen again since then, I know that elements of lack of psychological safety exist in many teams and organisations.

What is Psychological Safety?

In her book ‘The Fearless Organization’ Amy C. Edmondson explains that it’s human instinct to ‘fit it’ and ‘go along’. Our job as leaders is to create the psychological safety where our people feel safe to bring themselves in, no matter ‘how crazy’ the idea might be and ask questions without fearing they got laughed at. That’s how teams stay innovative.

Edmondson describes Psychological Safety as the belief that ‘one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.’ However, a recent Gallup report shows that only three in 10 workers strongly agree that their opinions seem to count at work. Creating psychological safety has to be front and centre of every people leader in organisations.

‘Psychological safety is not a perk; it’s essential to producing high performance in a VUCA world. – Amy C. Edmondson

Lencioni’s 5 functions of a high performing team model starts with ‘building trust’ in order to engage ‘productive conflict’. What is important to understand here is that psychological safety doesn’t equal trust. Trust is giving another person the benefit of the doubt and the belief they are doing the right thing. Psychological safety relates to whether others will give YOU the benefit of the doubt. Psychological safety is not everything to achieve high performance, but it is foundational and a prerequisite to innovation, collaboration, staying flexible and ahead of the game.

We won’t be able to make our workplaces completely fearless but we should do our best to create a high level of psychological safety, not just for performance but also to protect our team members and clients.

Psychological safety, as most things, start with us. Here are my 7 strategies on how to create a psychological safe culture:

  1. Transparency. It’s not just about transparent information flow. It’s about transparent team communication. Don’t allow people to talk behind each other’s backs. Gossip can be detrimental to creating psychological safety. Call it out and lead by example. If they are not in the room, they won’t be talked about. Same counts for copying (or blind copying) people into communication. Agree on what transparency means to your team.
  2. Radical Candor. If you want candid conversations, you must ensure that people care personally for each other first. Racial Candor, a term coined by Kim Scott, explains how both elements, personal care and challenging directly are important for candor to work. Build trust first, then encourage people to challenge ideas, decisions and plans.
  3. Vulnerability. Be someone who doesn’t know it all. The easiest way to take away the fear for people to speak up is by you asking questions, saying ‘I don’t know’ and admitting when you failed or made a mistake. Lead by example and show vulnerability without losing your confidence.
  4. Listen intently. Don’t just listen to reply, listen to understand. Take time to listen, pause, ask clarifying questions and make notes. Body language is just as important as content.
  5. Make failure safe. When things go wrong, people make mistakes or projects fall over, speak openly about it with your team. Look at it from all angles but focus on ‘what have we learned from this’? Some companies even reward failure.
  6. Ask for input. Always. But be specific what you expect from the team. When you brainstorm, make sure that you scribe ALL ideas, don’t dismiss any no matter what they are. If you have team members with a different cultural backgrounds where it is harder to come forward, send your expectations up front and call on them in the meeting so that they are not caught out in the moment.
  7. Set expectations. If you want people to come up with ideas, challenge the status quo and meet expectations, they need to know what the purpose is. Set expectations clearly with what is expected, by when and what it should look like. Don’t be vague and let people guess. Then encourage to think outside the box. Additional information and parameters will make your people feel comfortable, encouragement to venture outside the comfortzone will move the needle.
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Jessica Schubert

Jessica Schubert is a Leadership Expert, Executive Coach, Facilitator, Author and Speaker. She is obsessed with helping people realise their potential and unlock their inner genius.

Born in Cologne, Germany, Jessica has travelled the world and has spent more than 20 years leading cross-cultural teams in competitive markets throughout Europe and the Asia Pacific. As she worked with and coached her own diverse, cross-cultural teams, she came to realise that learning about yourself and developing interpersonal skills is the most powerful tool to lead and influence people around you.

In 2013 she launched Intact Teams, where she and her team have worked with thousands of leaders in organisations worldwide, delivering custom-designed leadership programs and workshops. These interactive and engaging programs are offered both virtually and in-person, helping leaders and their teams succeed in a complex and ever-changing business environment.

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Jessica Schubert