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How to Create Psychological Safety at Work

Knight Campbell
June 15, 2024

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak;
courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.
- Winston Churchill

If you have led people, you have probably seen this situation:

Someone you work with delivers mediocre work, and drops the ball too often. You like them, but you want them to do better. You coach them too often, and you secretly wonder if you are failing them. You wonder if you are failing to create an environment of psychological safety where they can thrive.

It’s easy to beat yourself up here, especially as you hear all about the wonders of psychological safety in the media. I’m here to say, don’t worry about it! Psychological safety is not the same as being nice or promoting mental health (though those are important too). Decouple psychological safety from coddling your team.

One participant smiling and talking with a Cairn guide at the base of the rock face.

What is psychological safety?

Harvard professor Amy Edmundson popularized psychological safety in 1999 as she studied the relationship between teamwork and the frequency of mistakes in hospital settings. Contrary to her hypothesis that high-performing teams make the fewest mistakes, she noticed that the highest performing teams made MORE mistakes than other teams. Wondering how that could be, she eventually found that the high-performing teams were more comfortable talking about their mistakes, as opposed to hiding them or hoping they would go unnoticed. This allowed the teams to learn faster and waste less time posturing.

In 2012, Google rocketed psychological safety to the top of leadership blogs with Project Aristotle, a comprehensive internal research project that indicated that psychological safety makes a much bigger difference in team outcomes than other factors like individual performance, consensus, tenure, location, size, and member personalities.

Note that this study was specific to Google, and researchers at Wharton Business School argue that in many cases psychological safety actually hurts team performance, especially when it is imperative workers follow routine processes. It feels hard to say that psychological safety can be overdone, because we often conflate the term with general safety. Of course people should feel physically and emotionally free from harm. However, psychological safety is a little different.

The challenging thing about this term is the definition. Many people think that it’s about allowing people to express themselves. Others think it’s about a general sense of comfort or not having to fear failure. Those definitions are misleading and incomplete.

Dr. Edmundson defines it in different ways over time. Here are two of my favorite definitions:

1. “A collective belief that candor is welcome”

2. “A shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”

What it isn't...

Welcoming candor does not mean an open microphone in the workplace.

In the dictionary, it means “embracing honesty and the willingness to tell the truth, particularly about a difficult or embarrassing subject.” This has little to do with authenticity and speaking ‘your truth’ in the workplace. Sometimes that is good, sometimes it’s counterproductive. In this case, psychological safety is all about what is best for the team, not individual feelings. It has everything to do with speaking up with new ideas or speaking up when you see potential danger down the road.

If you saw your boss making a mistake, you might not jump up immediately and call her out. You have a threshold of waiting to see what happens. You take a pause to make sure you’re not missing something before you put your reputation on the line. Like the Toyota Production System “Andon Cord,” psychological safety lowers that threshold, allowing potential mistakes to be addressed sooner. Interestingly, when the proverbial Andon Cord is pulled and there isn’t a mistake, it still creates a learning opportunity in how to correctly identify potential mistakes.

Accepting interpersonal risk does not mean accepting incompetence.

Failing because of incompetence is not ok on a high-performing team. Making the same mistake repeatedly is not ok. Risk means purposefully trying new things in a thoughtful way. Sometimes you try a new idea, take on a more challenging role, speak your mind, or give tough feedback to a colleague and it goes wrong. That was interpersonal risk. A team with psychological safety will embrace you for that type of failure. You’ll learn and grow and not make the same mistake again.

what to do about it

So when can you fire a low performer and still maintain psychological safety?

When to keep someone:

1. They speak their mind and most of the time the contribution is helpful, even though it might not be what you wanted to hear.

2. They try new things and sometimes fail, but often succeed.

3. They take feedback as skillfully as they give it.

When to let them go:

1. They speak their mind but it’s usually not helpful, or it’s focused on them and their comfort more than the good of the team.

2. They try new things before they master their current job and often fail.

3. They fail in simple tasks or repeat the same mistakes without learning from failures.

It’s not really so cut and dry. When you are leading, you always feel like you’re failing when one of your people struggles. It is important to be honest with yourself as a leader in this process: are you embracing candor and giving helpful feedback? Are you modeling how to take risk and acknowledge honest mistakes to your team?

One of our guides and facilitators, Adam Storck, puts it clearly:

“I’ve found the teams I’ve been on with high psychological safety have usually felt the opposite of fuzzy feel good. They are brimming with productive tension and spirited disagreement during discussions, which can feel profoundly uncomfortable! The key is that the discomfort is paired with trust, respect, humility, and a belief that everyone is committed to making the team as successful as possible.”

If nothing else, shoot for that feeling!

Questions? We'd love to hear from you! 

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