The belief within a team or organisation that it is safe for them to express themselves without fear of negative consequences such as ridicule, rejection, or punishment is paramount to a healthy culture. This is often referred to as psychological safety, and it is key to improving the creativity, collaboration and productivity of a team.
Shirley Parson’s Occupational Psychology Consultant, Jordan Harlow explores the concept that ‘in the modern work environment, psychological safety has been shown to be one of the best indicators of high performing teams.’
1986 Chernobyl - a series of operator errors and inherently unsafe design led to the direct deaths of 31 people and 4000 indirectly. One of the core questions of this disaster was how could so many issues build up and be allowed to continue to run, why did no one say anything? The simplest answer is fear of authority and the need to please the political party that created a culture of fear; one where it is better to keep your head down rather than questioning leadership and its decisions.
A safe culture.
The current theory of psychological safety was coined by Dr Amy Edmondson, who in a 1999 study of clinical teams found that teams that had more mistakes had a higher number of good outcomes, while teams with lower rates of mistakes had fewer good outcomes. It was discovered that the teams that were performing the highest had the most mistakes because they were open and willing to admit their mistakes, while low performing teams were more likely to be hiding theirs.
When building high performing teams and generating a positive culture, the core lays within generating feelings of psychological safety. As shown in Chernobyl and similar disasters, a culture of fear leads to employees hiding faults and issues to appease those they are afraid of. When in discussions of “safety culture” in companies, it is hard to build a safe culture if the base of that culture doesn’t start in the minds of those who carry the weight of that culture on their backs. In all cases leaders are the centre of psychological safety; they build, maintain and spread culture through action and, damage it through negligence. The first step to building and improving psychological safety is to create a strong foundation of openness to expand upon.
Lead by example.
The basic element at the core of psychological safety is the trust that lays between leader and employee. Like all elements of trust, it takes time to mature but can be lost in a singular moment. While there is no such thing as a one size fits all approach, as the individual differences of each person must be considered, there are a few general tips to keep in mind when creating a positive environment.
The first step to creating a healthy environment, similar with any cultural piece, is to lead by example. Hypocrisy is a killer of interpersonal relationships, and while flashy language and taglines disseminated out to try to evoke cultural change can be nice, if the leaders aren’t leading by example, it will never take hold.
In order to facilitate psychological safety in this way, be open and vulnerable with your team, share thoughts, feelings and your concerns openly while encouraging others to do the same. Once you have laid the groundwork, it is important to maintain that level of openness through positive motivations and blame free culture. Rather than focusing on blame or punishment, instead encourage your team to learn from their mistakes. Critical errors should always be brought up, but rather than focusing on the problem, focus on the opportunities for growth that would prevent the issue from occurring in the future. This encourages individuals to be more open when asking for assistance and relaying struggles they perceive before they become critical, which in process assists in their wider growth.
Along this same train of thought, foster a culture of positivity by celebrating success and offering support, as the flag bearer to those you lead, it is on you to encourage positive traits and create a safe environment for them to thrive. Being actively available for support fosters a sense of belonging and inclusivity and leads to individuals collaborating better and seeking improvement as a unit. These tips while straightforward are crucial to the foundation of a strong, psychologically safe team.
Once a strong foundation has been formed it is important to note that you are never done influencing the culture of your team. Be the model that you want to see in those that follow you and maintain a positive environment through continued action. Firstly, following through lessons beyond their initial implementation shows drive and engagement with the team. Similarly, regular check ins are powerful in driving employee engagement. Ask for feedback, give support, check in on how they are doing in work and their personal life. While a simple tip, engaging on a personal level demonstrates you are open to feedback and committed to them as a person, rather than as a cog in the machine.
As collaboration becomes more common, so too shall conflict. Address conflict proactively and encourage team members to resolve issues directly with each other, while offering support if needed. Mediation of healthy communication is key to a healthy collaborative environment, and in turn, assists in the active listening skill of the team. Active listening as a standard ensures that everyone present is heard and acknowledged. Allow everyone a voice and recognise the members of a team that may be more deferential. Deferential individuals may submit to the louder voices of assertive individuals, but when bringing themselves out to share a point do so with their full commitment. In situations like this you want to encourage them which, in some cases, leads to the individual being more communicative in the future.
One suggested activity to foster and maintain communication in a group is to practice weekly “successes and struggles”. In team meetings or catchups ask each member to share one or more successes and any struggles they faced in the interim periods between meetings. Allow openness, celebrate even the little wins and offer guidance on struggles they face. Sometimes people focus too much on the success and hide their daily struggles which could have been assisted or sympathised with. When this path of communication is opened it illuminates the work that everyone puts towards the team and fosters sympathy and belonging.
It's important to recognise the comfort of your team, never force input and start the activity with your own success and struggle and then open the floor to the next person who wants to participate. As this activity becomes standard you may find people comfortable enough to be the opener. Remember to respect the comfort of those in your team, forcing them to be open may make them close down even more in the future.
The modern working environment.
Another special consideration is the changes to our work environment in recent years. Hybrid and remote working have now become more common and there are special considerations and tips to consider for remote workplace settings.
Remote and hybrid environments have become a common option since the 2020 pandemic and environments like this have both their own benefits and challenges. In terms of psychological safety, it can be difficult to foster relationships through a screen however there are certain tips that can be put into practice to assist in these situations.
Video calls are common as teams, hangouts and zoom became more commonplace in business, and are an invaluable tool to assist in a sense of connection to your team. Body language and expressions are a large part of communication, with studies by Dr. Mehrabian showing 90% of communication exists in nonverbal forms which influence our interpretation of information. Video conferencing allows for the nonverbal elements to still be relevant when collaborating or sharing ideas and thoughts.
When doing collaborative work, modern online tools such as shared documents or project management software allows for teams to work more effectively together, reduce misunderstandings in projects and promote transparency of work. When workers are remote and especially if siloed, it can be difficult to see the progress of your co-workers which can lead to feelings of dissociation from the team. Dissociation from the team results in less collaboration and openness, through the transparency and involvement of collaboration tools this is remedied by showing how things are moving around each person.
The strongest tool against dissociation however is informal communication between the team, usually in an office setting the lunchroom or “water cooler chats” are a small but important social element to team cohesion. Attempt to have informal moments whether it be a virtual coffee break or an online game session. Relationship building and getting to know each other on a personal level aid in psychological safety but also base motivation and team cohesion.
Finally, to expand on a point of the previous section, encourage active listening in online meetings. It can be easy to be distracted by elements of the home while working, so ensure that everyone’s ideas are heard, acknowledged and not ignored. While work from home settings can be difficult, to manage their flexibility offers many positives that reduce stress and promote positive culture. As a leader, always make sure to maintain a level of flexibility with what issues your team may face in their home life, especially with personal or family issues. The trust that builds from interactions in these scenarios can be the largest boost to openness possible.
With high performance, lower accident rates and more creativity foster a positive culture of safety. While this is formed by leadership and maintained through a leader’s actions, the final outcomes will lay in your team. Foster positive interactions and mediate when negative elements arise, like a garden, attention is always required and in teams where the element of psychological safety is missing it may be an uphill battle. However, by considering the thoughts and feelings of your team, you will build a safer and better performing outcome.
Shirley Parsons Talent Consultancy services use modern techniques to foster communication within existing teams and assist in the psychological safety of teams through workshops and coaching. Whether it be leadership coaching to an executive or management suite or team workshops, by opening the door to healthy communication, we strive to assist people to become their best.