What is psychological safety?
On the individual level, psychological safety is “feeling able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career”. For our teams at work, it is a “shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”. When you experience psychology safety you will feel comfortable to admit mistakes, be able to lean from failure, make better decisions, and openly share ideas.
Psychological safety encourages unparalleled innovation, increases employee happiness, decreases staff turnover, nurtures productivity and elevates people. To get positive outcomes, you need both individual and team psychological safety to be present. Where a low level of psychological safety exists, it manifests in a fear of dissenting, fear of being marginalised, embarrassed, and fear of being authentic. A state of strong psychological safety enables individuals to feel safe to dissent, to contribute authentically, and ultimately to feel included.
- From academic evidence, we know improving psychological safety will improve:
- Overall engagement
- Team effectiveness
- Strategic problem solving
What happens when we don’t have psychological safety?
In the Volkswagen emissions scandal over 50 people were found to be knowingly involved in a deliberate conspiracy to defraud the USA Environmental Protection Agency. How does this happen? Well, because of immense pressure and a lack of psychological safety – people didn’t feel they could speak up if they disagreed. From an interview with one of those involved “The CEO, Martin Winterkorn was known to be a tough, impatient, arrogant man with an obsessive focus of detail and perfectionism. If one presented bad news to him, he would shout and demean the individual in front of others. We find such behaviours often deeply engrained in an organisation’s history. Winterkorn, for example, was a protege of the previous boss, Ferdinand Piech. Piech instigated a reign of terror and a culture driven by fear and intimidation.”
When has psychological safety driven positive impact?
Pixar became one of the most successful studios because it put psychological safety at the core of its processes. Co-founder Ed Catmull said candour was critical to ensure high production standards were maintained. During the development period of a film, a group (The Braintrust) get together to review the progress of the film. These people are encouraged not to hold back but speak their mind.
There are some clear rules of The Braintrust to ensure it stays on track:
- Feedback must be constructive
- The filmmaker cannot be defensive or take comments personally
- The comments are suggestions not mandates
- Feedback is not a ‘Gotcha’ but to come from a place of empathy and positive intent for the film. It is because they respect and trust in each other that this can work. Thus praise is also given out in equal measure.
Another example comes from UKTV. The UKTV CEO Darren Childs talks about the introduction of weekly town-hall meetings to create more psychology safety by sharing adversity and mistakes. Childs’ reasons? He says: “We wanted to give our employees the chance to ask the leadership questions. Nothing was taboo. We also wanted everybody to receive all relevant information. But Childs noticed that eventually people were not comfortable in bringing up the touchier subjects. “That was one of the most difficult things,’’ said Childs, “convincing people that it really is OK to ask anything because we want to be completely transparent.’’ He came up with a simple but effective solution: a post-box decorated with a prominent white question mark. Anyone with a question, or wanting to share matters of a sensitive nature, was asked to put it in the box. It would be opened only during the meetings. All questions were answered there and then, with no pre-prepared, politically correct answers or corporate propaganda. This became a powerful tool for creating psychological safety.
Practical tips to build psychological safety
- Have a dedicated Devil’s Advocate in meetings
- Helps people get used to the idea of dissent as useful, welcome, and important
- Rotate the person who plays this role so that everyone gets practice and so no individual develops the reputation of being difficult
- Add “Rotten Tomatoes Time” in meetings
- Protect time (even about 10 minutes of a 1 hour meeting) in the middle of a meeting for everyone to poke holes in the ideas you’ve come up with. This will help normalize disagreement, lower defensiveness, and create a culture where constructive critique is taken as useful.
- Use the “6 hats” technique to solve problems
- Consider the 6 modes of thinking as 6 different coloured hats you could wear: White hat – facts & information, Red hat – feelings & intuition, Yellow hat – benefits & advantages, Black hat – caution & problems, Green hat – creativity & solutions, Blue hat – managing thinking
- Can also do this with different perspectives to a situation: Social, Political, Environmental, Religious, Moral, Monetary
- Each person in the meeting can wear a different “hat”
- Practice responding with empathy
- Use the empathy formula: “I hear that you’re feeling ______ because _________”
- Have open sessions for your team to ask questions about (or critique) decisions
- You might consider using an anonymous “question box” at first, so people feel comfortable asking uncomfortable questions
- Resist defensive instincts and reactions
- Defensive reactions serve to maintain our own comfort and position. Consider your impact, not just your intent, when responding (the empathy formula may be helpful here too.
For bespoke coaching on boosting psychological safety at work, get in touch.