It’s starting to feel like spring in more ways than one. In just the past month we’ve had unexpected shocks and fixes in global finance, and incredible leaps in accessibility of AI. Sometimes it can feel like a fun roller coaster, others like a dizzying whirlwind, but the one thing that can always help is sharing ideas, and concerns with peers. 

While pondering this and inspired by our previous article on boundaries, I’ve been wondering why it sometimes feels so hard to bring up the risks and opportunities we see at work, when doing it is an essential part of good collaboration? This brought me to  psychological safety. A concept that you’re, ironically, more likely to be familiar with if it was, at one point in your career, missing.

What is psychological safety

Psychological safety is “the belief that the work context is safe for interpersonal risk-taking – that speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes will be welcomed and valued.”* In short, when psychological safety is high, people feel comfortable admitting mistakes, requesting help from others, raising problems, respectfully challenging peers, etc. When it’s low those behaviours are avoided and keeping up appearances or protecting your back becomes more important than doing the right thing. 

We all know that feeling safe is good and feeling unsafe is bad, but, at the same time, feeling challenged with the right amount of pressure increases focus, determination, and improves results. Therefore, let’s discuss how, as leaders, we can maintain the right balance between making our teams feel safe, but without coddling or fostering complacency. 

The 4 Stages Of Psychological Safety

To start off, let’s review the merits of psychological safety. In a wide body of research, it’s shown highly positive effects on individuals and organisations. It increases the ability of teams to learn and adapt to new business requirements. It also makes people more cooperative, and better at learning from failure. As a result, it renders organisations more competitive, innovative, and resilient. 

These benefits show up gradually, as teams progress through the four stages of psychological safety, as identified by dr. Timothy Clark:

  • Inclusion - feeling accepted and understood as a person
  • Learner - being comfortable asking questions and admitting mistakes
  • Contributor - knowing you can speak up and are trusted for your expertise
  • Challenger - confidently questioning others or the status quo in a respectful way

When all stages are reached, organisations become more effective primarily because people feel more comfortable taking risks and learning. For instance they might test or prototype new products,  adopt a new technology ahead of competitors, propose to expand in a new region or area, etc.

If you’re wondering how to recognize if you’re doing well on this journey, I can share a bit of my own experience. I know I fostered safety as a leader when I can tell my team feels and acts brave. When they come up with new ideas organically, have each other’s backs during hectic times, plan the next launch with an excitement akin to winning a championship, speak to clients with natural, convincing dedication. It’s that sense of “we’re in this together and we’re in it to win it”. You know it when you have it, and it’s the best feeling in the world. 

For these benefits to occur, however, it’s also important to understand what is not associated with psychological safety. Fear of conflict, decision by committee, avoiding hard conversations represent the opposite of safety. It’s perfectly normal to be worried about hurting another person’s feelings when giving them a piece of negative feedback. But the whole premise of feeling safe at work is that both the good and the bad can be shared, that healthy disagreement is not only possible, but an inevitable part of learning. And here, setting a great example as a leader is essential.

The role of the leader

Leaders set the tone in teams and their behaviour is watched more closely. With great power comes great responsibility, Spiderman. Thankfully, fostering psychological safety as a leader requires the same strengths that enhance leadership more broadly: being supportive, acting as a coach, responding with understanding and interest rather than defensiveness. When all these behaviours are applied consistently team members are much more likely to feel safe. 

Instead, leaders that are authoritative and enact harsh consequences inspire a corresponding degree of fear, which determines teams to stop bringing up their errors, and resist making suggestions. This in turn reduces organisational visibility, and both risks and solutions are spotted with delay. Such leaders may also be afraid of appearing vulnerable, and avoid discussing their own learning and mistakes, which diminishes both their own effectiveness and expertise, and that of their teams. 

Personally, I’ve seen many leaders try the “what we need here is a strong hand” approach. More often than not, a few months after this approach is taken top performers start to trickle away, leaving an empty shell where a decent team used to be. It’s a tempting approach in hard times… but it’s wisest to resist it. 

The limits of psychological safety

With all this said, it’s also important to state that psychological safety is not a magical solution to every problem. Team effectiveness is heavily driven by other organisational aspects such as having clear tasks, the right mix of skills, access to relevant information, necessary resources, and incentives. An innovative team that is high on psychological safety but operates on a shoestring budget may occasionally come up with a blockbuster hit. But they will certainly be less likely to do so than a well funded team full of heavy hitters who are on their fifth rodeo. In other words, psychological safety is a great engine, but you still need gas in the tank to go anywhere. 

Final thoughts

Psychological safety is in many ways a never ending journey. Teams and times change, and every challenge tests us but also brings an opportunity to foster safety and learning. How are you facilitating these things in your organisation?

In the part 2/2 of this article where we will share processes you can implement to build more psychological safety in your organisation. Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter!

Research and inspiration behind this article

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