Psychological safety

In my last newsletter, I talked about psychology and I would like to get back to this topic today.

In 2014, Google shared the results of its Aristotle research project on the question of “How to build a perfect team,” first with its employees and then with the whole world. It was a complete surprise for the researchers involved that the top criterion actually was psychological safety. The members of the project team had expected team composition or leadership style – something on those lines. There were examples of teams in these areas, however, that were very effective and those that weren’t at all. It was only when the Aristotle project team looked at older psychological research that they found out that psychological safety was the number one success factor. This was because psychological safety was a pattern found in all the successful teams represented in data they had collected.

Amy Edmondson had already addressed this topic, as early as 1999, and provided the following definition of psychological safety: “...a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” 

Now, what is it that makes psychological safety so important for a team? Let me try to put it in my own words.

Fear is the opposite of psychological safety. Fear is a bad counselor, so they say. However, fear is present when the behavior and reactions of colleagues and managers are unpredictable, for example, or where there is this one person who dominates all meetings.

I often see managers and teammates who are probably not aware of their behavior and who endanger or even destroy their team members’ psychological safety with thoughtless actions, gestures or words. My observations include the following:

  • Unpredictability: sometimes you will be rewarded for one thing, but at other times you will receive criticism for the same thing
  • Someone rolls their eyes at ideas that, at first, do not seem to be a perfect fit
  • Hastily dismissing suggestions by saying “Yes, but...”

This behavior, i.e. such a type of team or corporate culture, promotes fear and prevents or reduces innovation, problem-solving skills and quality.

Acknowledging that psychological safety is not existing in a particular environment is the first important step towards corrective action. A potential supporting action could be to ask the team questions that are answered anonymously by every single team member. Such questions are particularly helpful if they are asked at regular intervals during the transformation phase towards greater psychological safety. They can then provide information on whether the organization or the respective team is on the right track. Examples may include:

  • How big of an impediment is it for you to admit mistakes?
  • How easy is it for you to ask others in the team for help?
  • How much do you like to share your own ideas without thinking them through in detail beforehand?

It is a well-known fact that you cannot simply create a culture – for example a culture of psychological safety – just with a snap of your finger. However, you can establish rituals and routines, and make behavioral arrangements all of which create a safer environment for employees step by step. In my view, one of the major tasks of a manager is to ensure a working environment that is free from fear.

I would like to give you some food for thought on what you can do to support psychological safety:

  • Ensure that all team members are given equal speaking parts in discussions, e.g. by distributing responsibilities accordingly or by using meeting formats in which everyone speaks in rounds
  • Create space for vulnerability, e.g. by sharing personal stories from time to time, thus ensuring that the team members get better acquainted with one another
  • Establish a “yes, and...” culture in discussions in which concerns are held back until an idea has taken shape in order to give it a real chance to develop
  • Make team decisions on the basis of clear rules and with full transparency, e.g. using the objection integration process (also known as the principle of consent)
  • Work through mistakes together and focus on what has been learned from them
  • Establish an appreciative feedback process

In my opinion, one last aspect should not be forgotten. However, it is the most difficult to implement: you should allow for tensions and criticism to be addressed openly and resolved timely. Basically, this aspect is the result of an environment of psychological safety. This means that if things are not all nice and cozy, but sometimes controversial or subject to heated debate, then you have a good indication that psychological safety already exists. This is because the team members are no longer afraid to fight for their ideas, even if no one else supports their opinion. Another indication of a safe environment is when team members or the manager directly talk about something that bothers them or when they feel unfairly treated by one or more people.

For me, I compare the state of psychological safety in a team with the system in my family: there are four of us, my children are almost 18 and 20 years old, and things get heated quite often. Topics are discussed controversially, things sometimes get loud and if someone feels ignored, he or she addresses this right away. Well, in my family, there are no signs of fear at any rate. 
At the same time, my husband keeps telling me that I am much more patient and generous with my teams than I am at home. And he is right. Of course, the way we communicate at work is (or at least it should be) characterized by much more reflection and thoughtfulness than it is at home, and that's a good thing!

And this is a perfect transition to the upcoming Christmas season: I wish you and your families a peaceful Christmas and a good start to 2024!

If you argue, argue fairly, come to a good solution afterwards and be grateful for the time you spend together!

So, have a Merry Christmas!

This text first appeared in my newsletter 'Innovation on Wednesday'. It is published every three weeks. For subscription click here

Further reading:

Andrea SchmittInnovationstrainerinAm Mittelpfad 24aD 65520 Bad Camberg+49 64 34-905 997+49 175 5196446
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