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Why psychological safety matters and how to increase it within your team

In a recent coaching session, a client relayed his disengagement with his role and organisation.

He referred to feeling “personally attacked”, that challenges were “on my shoulders”, and that his organisation is generally “out to get you”. The degree to which his perception reflected reality was to be explored in subsequent sessions, but one fact was blatantly clear from the outset – my coachee did not feel psychologically safe at work.

Somewhat of a buzzword these days, the concept of psychological safety has been around for a long time (think Maslow and his legendary Hierarchy of Needs). Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard defines it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Put another way, it’s a context in which individuals can show up as themselves – contributing, sharing and questioning freely without fear of negative judgement or consequence.

And it’s important. Really important. Google says so……

In a mammoth data crunching exercise, titled Project Aristotle, Google sought to identify what differentiated its high-performing teams from others. The results indicated that a number of variables were at play but the one that was most consistent and fundamental to all high-performing teams was, you guessed it, psychological safety.

“What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘work face’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel “psychologically safe,” we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency.” (NY Times, 2016)

It’s not surprising that psychological safety is a bedrock for engagement and performance. Neuroscience has highlighted that our brains are preoccupied with identifying threats and rewards in our environments. If we perceive a threat, we don our armour and play safe. That means we won’t challenge the status quo, take on new challenges, innovate and take risks, ask questions, speak up in meetings, make tough decisions….and the list continues. In other words, we won’t show up as our our authentic selves and fully tap into our potential to support a high performing team, function or organisation.

As leaders, that should matter. And as leaders, we have a big influence over the environment in which individuals turn up to work each day. Korn Ferry Hay Group research determined that leadership behaviours determine 50-70% of organisational culture. As a Hay Group senior client partner, puts it, “There is no culture-neutral behaviour”. So the question becomes, what behaviours can brain-friendly leaders adopt to nurture psychological safety for their teams?

Here are five suggestions that you can put into practice immediately:

1.      Show vulnerability – As humans we are hard-wired to connect with other humans. So show your humanity – reveal how you feel, what you care about and what concerns you. And if you’re worried that may be perceived as weakness, think again. As Brené Brown at the University of Texas reminds us, it is in fact “our greatest measure of courage”. More often than not, people reciprocate by sharing more of themselves in return. That’s when true connection and trust occurs.

2.      Truly listen – We all say we’re good at listening, but are we really? I am forever grateful to a courageous team member who pointed out that, having invited feedback from my team on the effectiveness of our meetings, I effectively shut down any constructive comments. I had no idea. Truly listening doesn’t just happen, it takes conscious effort to be present and to tune in to what others are saying and why they are saying it. Putting in that time and effort communicates volumes to team members about their value and safety.

3.      Provide authentic praise – Receiving praise triggers the reward circuitry in our brain. It makes us feel good and reinforces a sense of safety. Yet our brains are more prone to spotting what’s going wrong than what’s going right so, again, it takes conscious effort to adopt this behaviour. Experiment with regularly spotting what your team members are doing well and acknowledging them for it.

4.      Recognise that to be human is to make mistakes – Mistakes are just that, mistakes. We all make them because we’re all human. Yet we don’t always respond with that understanding. Our human propensity to notice and avoid threats, means team members will quickly clock if mistakes are not tolerated. The result? They don’t take risks or accept new challenges outside of their comfort zone. And, where they do make mistakes, they are less likely to admit to them or seek assistance.  Brain friendly leaders can turn that around by being compassionate when mistakes are made, even celebrating them as opportunities to learn and improve. They can also make it okay for others to admit to making mistakes by revealing their own fallibility. To err is human after all.

5.      Support the tribe – As humans we are tribal beings who need to be in supportive relationships. Brain friendly leaders recognise this and reinforce tribal relationships on a regular basis. One way they do this is by showing they trust their fellow tribe members. In other words, not micro-managing but empowering team members to contribute in a meaningful way – and in their own authentic style. They also protect them. In the past that would have been standing shoulder to shoulder when the infamous sabre-toothed tiger was about to attack. These days, it’s backing them up when stakeholders attack their work or approach. It’s not about agreeing with everything they say and do but it is about demonstrating you’re on the same team. Always.

Adopting these brain-friendly behaviours on a once-in-a-while basis won’t cut it. Instead, leaders serious about creating a context of psychological safety need to integrate them into their everyday habits. As Edmondson reminds us “Psychological safety at work takes effort. It’s not the norm. But it’s worth the effort”.

References: Amy Edmondson (1999) Psychological Safety and Learning Behaviour in Work Teams, Brené Brown (2015) Rising Strong

Esprit Consulting is a boutique leadership and organisational development consultancy that works across industries to cultivate engaging cultures and high performance.

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