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What exactly IS psychological safety (and how do I get it)?

Anyone with any interest in leadership will have heard the term “psychological safety” in the last few years. But what does it actually mean?

It’s actually a very simple concept: when a team or organisation has psychological safety, individuals feel able to give constructive feedback, admit to mistakes and ask for help. They are open to learning from each other. All this is great for creating a positive culture and encouraging better performance overall.

Here are five points to remember when you’re thinking about psychological safety.

1) Psychological safety is about group dynamics, not interpersonal relationships.

You can’t build psychological safety through relationships, it’s all about culture. It needs to be built in a group.

One on one, you can build trust and respect to ensure honesty. For a team, you need to build a culture that ensures everyone feels able to contribute and to voice their opinions or concerns openly. This is trickier, obviously, as group dynamics come into play. But leadership can make a real difference.

2) It’s all about how we weigh up risk

The levels of psychological safety in a group are determined by the degree of risk people feel about speaking up. At the extreme end, this might be about risk to their job, but mostly it’s about interpersonal risk.

Individuals will ask themselves: if I admit that I’m not sure about something will I lose the respect of the group? If I disagree will I be ostracised? If I point out a problem will people dislike me for being ‘difficult’? These questions may not be conscious, but they inform the choices we make.

To create psychological safety, you need to make your team feel secure that speaking up is low risk.

3) It’s not about everyone being nice

Psychological safety is not about creating a culture in which everyone agrees with each other all the time.

You’re trying to create a culture where people feel able to share their opinions and ask questions. Healthy discussion and conflict (not combat) is key to surface new ideas and ensure diversity of thought. Keeping quiet because you don’t want to upset anyone is the opposite of psychological safety.

Of course, this doesn’t mean psychological safety is an excuse for anyone to be nasty, either. The ‘safety’ is created by the fact that all feedback is focused on how to solve a shared problem, or to make a project better. It should never be, or feel, personal.

4) You need to support people to take feedback as well as give it

Usually, when I work with teams, they will all agree that to everyone should be able to give honest feedback. However, people will become visibly more uncomfortable about receiving it.

As much as we all know that “feedback is a gift”, hearing someone else criticise something you’ve spent a long time working on, or for them to disagree with something you believe in, is not easy or pleasant.

Here, as a leader, you need to model the behaviour you want to see. Invite your team to tell you want they think and react the way you would want them to react. You don’t have to agree with everything, but you need to accept it as constructively given.

Individuals also need to feel that being able to listen to other people and see things from a different angle will drive their own success.

5) It’s essential if you want high standards and innovation

A lot of the original research into psychological safety comes from hospitals, where the stakes are potentially very high if mistakes are made. Identifying and rectifying mistakes is crucial. Far from being a “nice to have”, psychological safety ensures high standards.

Most workplaces are facing almost constant change at the moment. To adapt to this, and to thrive, it’s essential for organisations to be able to adapt and learn quickly. To do this, you need a culture where individuals feel empowered to speak out and take action – to take risks. You need a culture of psychological safety.

So how do you create psychological safety?

As with all cultural shifts, it won’t happen overnight. Here are some things to ask yourself:

  1. How can we frame the way we work so that we see ourselves as working together to solve a shared problem rather than individually to further our own careers?

  2. How do we give feedback within the team? Is it open, fair and non-critical? How can we improve? How can we practice?

  3. Am I modelling this behaviour myself, as a leader? How do I respond to feedback? Do I actively look for it?

  4. Does our hierarchical structure prevent every member of the team from feeling they can contribute?

There is a very important link between psychological safety and diversity and inclusion work. It needs to be very clear that every member of the team is valid and valued, and has the opportunity to contribute.

If you’re interested in knowing more then Amy Edmonson is the expert in this field and I would recommend her book The Fearless Organisation.

If you're interested in all things leadership related, subscribe to my monthly Reflections and Recommendations e-newsletter.

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