What is psychological safety?
On my very first day at Equal Experts, one thing stood out starkly for me; the grown up attitude of the teams around me. People are not afraid to question each other, speak up with their ideas, or admit when they’ve made a mistake. And there’s no such thing as a silly question here. That’s because, from day one, the goal has been about learning from each other and taking things at face value – and it creates psychological safety.
Recently, I’ve been on a journey of discovery with colleagues across the business to understand what psych safety means to them and how it feels for their customers and the people in their teams. This led us to discussions around common “myths” and misconceptions about what psych safety is – and what it is not.
- “Psych Safety is happiness”. This is the most common conflation that we hear. While there is a wealth of research that correlates teams with high levels of psychological safety, and happiness, being happy does not necessarily mean that a team has high levels of psychological safety.
- “Psych Safety is keeping things comfortable”. It’s natural to choose comfort (who wants to be uncomfortable!) but wrapping each other in bubble wrap to avoid stepping on egos, or power dynamics is the opposite of psych safety. In fact, leaning into discomfort and choosing to do the difficult thing is often where the growth and learning is. Speaking truth to power and stating our thoughts – even when we think we are the only one with this opinion or insight – can feel difficult. But this behaviour is necessary for psych safety. Psych safety is about cultivating an environment where this CAN happen, is welcomed, AND where individuals in a team can lean into this kind of discomfort.
- “Psych Safety is being nice”. We certainly want to care and have empathy for one another. But when “being nice” prevents us from having hard hitting debates with each other, or delivering honest but uncomfortable feedback that is better for the individual, the team and the client, then this is where being “nice” actually gets in the way of psychological safety.
- “Psych Safety encourages complaints”. All of us need to be able to complain and vent but psych safety means we do this in a way that makes things better instead of just unloading. Can we take the things we are dissatisfied with and make them actionable?
- “Psych Safety is freedom from conflict”. It’s the opposite! In fact, psychological safety is an obligation to disagree and have conflict in the most productive ways possible. Psych Safety doesn’t guarantee acceptance of our opinions, nor should we be looking for total agreement from the team; it is mutual respect for ideas and responding with candour that we’re looking for.
- “Psych Safety is a one-off exercise”. Nope. Growth isn’t linear. Unfortunately, we don’t achieve a state of perfect psychological safety and remain here! Psych Safety is an ongoing approach of meeting challenges honestly and respectfully as they appear. We need to be continuously refining and nurturing our ways of working to maintain trust and respect. Psychological Safety goes up and down but it’s the challenges that happen in a team that help us grow our muscles!
Why bother with psych safety?
Ultimately, a “safe place” is not the end goal of psychological safety; what we’re looking for is team excellence and learning. Nor does psych safety mean you will always feel comfortable, because discomfort is part of growth. In fact, being too comfortable actually hinders growth.
In reality, feeling safe enough at work to learn, challenge and debate is what encourages growth and learning, which in turn supports business innovation and value. Pioneer and champion of psychological safety Amy Edmondson created this 2×2 matrix to illustrate the value of psych safety in the workplace:
How to encourage psychological safety in your teams
Psych safety as a way of operating is complex and requires ongoing effort. But it is contagious so once it’s under the skin of your business, it will help your teams to flow. Here’s how to kick start psych safety in your workplace:
- Speak up yourself and encourage others to do the same. Actually, if you are someone who tends to do the majority of the speaking, try holding back and spending more of your energy encouraging the people who speak less to contribute.
- Don’t shoot down ideas and, when you see people getting shut down or dismissed, step in and advocate. Help the team to respectfully encourage debate and be open.
- Ask questions and invite others to ask questions.
- Frame the work as a learning problem, not a performance task.
- Don’t blame.
- Be open about your mistakes and normalise failures (and learn from them!)
- Model curiosity, be open to new ideas.
- Use the 2×2 matrix to facilitate a conversation with your team about where you are and what you can do to nurture psych safety.
Psych safety is the key factor in team effectiveness, creativity and innovation, and once you see it in action you’ll never want it to be any other way.