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The Importance of Creating Psychological Safety

3 min read · December 7, 2020

Category: General MusingsTagged with: Psychological SafetyTeam Health

Photo by Dušan Veverkolog

"Words are noise. Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one powerful overarching idea: We are safe and connected." ~ Daniel Coyle

We've all probably experienced some truly amazing teams and some dreadful ones. What sets them apart? It isn't pure happenstance or a roll of the dice. The foundation of healthy teams and cultures is a concept called Psychological Safety. While this concept has been picking up buzzword steam, it has been around since 1999. In her paper, Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams Amy Edmondson defined team psychological safety as "a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking". Why is this so important and how can teams work to create it?

Within any given team, it is necessary to engage in learning behaviors. Learning behaviors are a means for the team to collect and process data to allow the team to adapt and improve. This can be found in sharing feedback, asking for help, admitting errors and working to identify means of avoiding them in the future and more. These same behaviors can also be accompanied with varying levels of risk. An individual engaging in any of these activities may be concerned of being viewed as incompetent, blamed, or fear negative repercussions for sharing these faults. In her paper Edmondson identified that "research has shown that the sense of threat evoked in organizations by discussing problems limits individuals' willingness to engage in problem solving activities." This limits the ability of the team to learn and adapt. The solution to this problem is increasing team members feeling of safety. When individuals feel that the team is safe, the perceived and actual risks of engaging in learning behavior can be reduced or even eliminated.

How do we foster Psychological Safety

If Psychological Safety is critical to reducing the friction for engaging in learning behavior how do we get it? Why is it present on some teams and not others? In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle identifies the impetus not as the words that are shared within the group, but subtextual indicators shared amongst the members. These indicators, or belonging cues, help to inform us about the safety of our current situation and engagements. The clues can include, but are not limited to: physical proximity, eye contact, attention, and body language. All belonging cues share 3 basic qualities.

  1. Energy: Belonging cues invest in the current exchange that is happening. They are intentional.
  2. Individualization: Belonging cues treat the person as unique and valued. They are worth this exchange and we are invested in them.
  3. Future orientation: Belonging cues signal that the relationship will continue. This is not a fleeting moment. We are connected.

The occasional presence of belonging cues in a team is not enough to build psychological safety on their own. Edmondson discovered that we need consistent presence of these cues to build up and maintain the feeling of safety.

How can Psychological Safety be damaged

Psychological safety is a process to build within a culture. Conversely, tearing it down can happen quickly. This is demonstrated in the case of the proverbial bad apple. Will Phelps conducted a study that discovered a single person could bring down the performance of an entire group. This individual would play one of three different negative archetypes: a jerk, a slacker, or a downer. The experiment was conducted with forty groups of 4 people. In almost all cases, the individual effectively reduced the output of the group by 30-40%, spreading their negative behaviors. These behaviors decimated the team's psychological safety. Their behaviors signaled to the group that I'm not safe; I can't speak out. The learning behavior cycle was short-circuited.

In one case, Phelps discovered that the individual's actions had little to no effect. The differentiating factor was another individual on the team who would defuse the situation. They would respond calmly, signaling to the rest of the group that they were safe, and then redirect to collaborative action such as inquiring for other people's thoughts. This group of participants were successful not because they were smarter, but because they were safer

Why is all this important

In 2015 Google completed a 2 year interview process with the goal of identifying what makes a successful team. They conducted over 200 interviews with Google employees and looked at more than 250 attributes across 180+ teams. What they discovered is "who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions." The culture of groups is a strong determinator of success. The presence or lack of psychological safety impacts the levels of risks a team is willing to take. Without the ability to take risks, a team is unlikely to engage in learning behavior, reducing their ability to evolve an adapt. As Coyle captures in his book "Words are noise. Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one powerful overarching idea: We are safe and connected."

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