Four ways to unlock psychological safety

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Reece Akhtar
June 5, 2022

Bravado, toughness, and an unrealistic level of confidence does not produce effective leaders — despite what we see in today’s popular business and political figures. If dominant or forceful leadership characteristics erode effectiveness, what then is the solution?

Psychological safety.

First popularized by Prof. Amy Edmonson, and later confirmed by an overwhelming body of scientific research, psychologically safe teams do not fear punishment when mistakes are made. This mindset results in team behaviors that are critical for achieving great things — smart risk-taking, practicing innovation, and offering critical feedback that elevates performance.

Leaders must remember that the character of their team is revealed in the bad times, not the good. Teams who debrief mistakes in a safe way, learn and improve together. Psychological safety means you can be honest about errors and not repeat mistakes.

Here are four ways you can start to foster a psychologically safe mindset in your team:

Practice constructive conflict

Most conflict at work is misguided. For a variety of reasons, we forget that our colleagues are on the same side. Rather than spending our energy working together to beat the competition, we spend it arguing with each other. Similarly, conflict is not something that we should shy away from. Was anything worthwhile born out of love and harmony?

Safety starts with knowing that we can challenge, and be challenged, without it getting personal. Putting our emotions and ego aside is difficult but foundational for constructive conflict. 

Leaders can support constructive conflict by asking their team members to prepare one-page position papers that outline the pros and cons of their ideas, assign a devil’s advocate, and ultimately end in a place where people “disagree but commit” to the best course of action.

Act with empathy

Long ago psychologists coined the term “fundamental attribution error” to describe when people mistakenly attribute the causes of one’s behavior. This cognitive bias leads to group tension, reputational damage, and frustration. This type of thinking pops up everyday at work: “how can Mike be so careless?”, “Why can’t Anna stick to deadlines?”, “Why is Steve so annoying?”.

The answer to neutralizing interpersonal tension is to practice empathy. Pushing ourselves to understand the motivations, values and goals of our colleagues’ behaviors can help us see past the surface and get to the root cause. Acknowledging and identifying our universal needs can help us find commonality and joint solutions to things we all care about.

Stay curious

Every mistake and failure is an opportunity to learn. Rather than blame the team for their failings, use it as an opportunity to uncover solutions that can be used in the future. Rather than say “It’s your fault that we didn’t meet our deadline”, say “what could we have done differently to meet our deadline?”.

Science shows that teams who have a high level of curiosity are more psychologically safe and effective. Leaders are best positioned to role model curiosity. Rather than use blame, use neutral and factual language to highlight the failing, jointly engage in the exploration of solutions, and communicate that they are willing to lend additional support in future.

Give and receive  feedback

Without feedback leaders and teams can never expect to improve. Teams that are psychologically safe have a culture whereby giving and receiving feedback is the norm. The best feedback is targeted, supported with clear examples, and comes with possible solutions. Feedback helps us stay aware of our blindspots and gaps, and gives us the data we need to develop.  

Feedback is often overly emotional, awkward and biased. Building a feedback culture starts with leaders showing their vulnerability and humility. You can start to have better feedback conversations by following three simple steps:

  1. Ask how the person felt about the situation.
  2. State what you think worked and what could have been improved.
  3. Co-create a solution and identify ways in which this feedback can be actioned.

Building a culture of psychological safety takes time and commitment. That is why we developed Team Sprints: a 45-day coaching experience that is powered by our suite of modern feedback tools and team of executive coaches. Team Sprints give groups the feedback they need to have constructive conflict, act with curiosity, and foster self-awareness so that more cohesive and collaborative relationships can be leveraged. Want to learn more?

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