Psychological safety is critical for high-performing teams

An introduction to psychological safety and ways to evaluate the level of safety in your organization.

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Big launches and milestone achievements deserve to be celebrated. When organizations take time to recognize the hard work that went into the completion of a release or even a bite-sized milestone, this helps employees recharge and stay motivated. The celebration might entail a release party, ending work a few hours early on a Friday, or a handwritten thank-you note.

But what happens when a team fails? The deadline for a big release is missed. A bug causes a security vulnerability. Or a change to the production environment causes product downtime.

Are these failures discussed? Do employees feel comfortable talking about what went wrong with their manager and team? Does your team take the time to reflect upon these situations through sprint retros or post-incident reviews? Does your team explore ways to overcome these mistakes in the future with a different path forwards or approach?

If the answer is no to the questions listed above, this could be a sign that teammates or employees across the organization lack psychological safety.

What is psychological safety?

A psychologically safe work environment encourages team members to speak up with ideas, concerns, or recent failures instead of choosing to remain silent.

According to Amy Edmondson, “psychological safety in the workplace is the belief that the environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

When employees feel psychologically safe, they’re willing to take more risks, share ideas, and speak their truth. There is an unspoken agreement that employees will not feel punished or embarrassed when speaking up, whether it’s exposing one’s ignorance by asking questions or offering a new solution or idea to a problem. Trust is created through interpersonal connections and reinforced through an open and transparent environment.

This engagement leads to uncharted collaboration, growth, and excellence. In fact, the 2017 Gartner Culture Workforce Survey found that when employees work in a psychologically safe environment, the discretionary effort can improve up to 24%. Discretionary effort means employees put in extra effort above and beyond what is expected because they want to.

Psychological safety and high-performing teams

Company retreats with trust falls and ice breakers can seem nonsensical, but at the core of these activities, there is a desire to create a space in which employees can be vulnerable—a judgment-free zone.

By having a psychologically safe environment, employees perceive risk as a good thing, and there is an understanding that employees won’t be seen as ignorant, incompetent, or invalid. Risk in this context could mean challenging the status quo, pitching a novel idea, etc.

Teams thrive when they take risks and fail (or succeed!) fast. Instead of being stagnant, the momentum continues forward as employees learn from their mistakes. Risk-taking and learning from mistakes so the team doesn’t repeat them again are behaviors of high-performing teams.

Evaluating your organization’s psychological safety

Below are a few ways to gauge the level of psychological safety within your team or organization:

There is a tolerance for mistakes

Employees are open about the mistakes they made instead of avoiding them or, worse yet, covering mistakes up. When team members make mistakes there is a level of acceptance and it’s not held against them. Leaders treat mistakes as an opportunity to learn and often communicate their own fallibility.

Micro-moments of learning occur regularly

Leaders model curiosity by sharing their ignorance on a topic and asking questions. Employees are empowered to ask questions, poke at proposals, and when the answer is unclear, employees are encouraged to level up through on-the-job learnings.

Space is created for reflection and review

The team takes time to learn from past performances to help with future improvements. Retrospectives allow teammates to discuss what went well and what didn’t go so well. It's an opportunity to brainstorm ways to make future improvements. The 4Ls approach helps to structure team or one-on-one conversations and uncover what was liked, learned, lacked, or longed for after a particular project or after a certain timeframe such as a year or quarter.

Risk-taking is encouraged

Employees voice radical business and technical ideas. They’re willing to take interpersonal risks by speaking up in meetings, voicing their concerns, and never settling without asking “why.” These risks lead to deep levels of participation and ownership.

There is a diversity of thought

More and more organizations will continue to focus resources on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) efforts, and Gartner's research found a 1.8x increase in HR executives listing DEI as a top initiative from 2019 to 2020. Companies benefit from cognitive diversity as a result of varying levels of experience, background, gender, and age across the team. ​​There is no “strict power structure” mentality for ideas or initiatives from the leadership team and leadership team only. Employees, regardless of their role, seniority, or tenure, have an equally valid opinion.

Creating a workplace environment that promotes psychological safety is an art, and there is no silver bullet. There are unspoken agreements, company-wide values, leadership qualities, and technology to help support this ongoing work.

This is part one of a three-part series on psychological safety. Next, we discuss how to build a psychologically safe environment through continuous learning opportunities.

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