Can you recall a time at work you hesitated to share your thoughts, opinions or truth out of concern for possible embarrassment, rejection or even punishment? Unsafe environments prevent individuals from showing up as themselves, asking questions, raising issues, taking risks or disagreeing. These unhealthy workplaces lower innovation, engagement and productivity, as well as, increasing an individual’s stress, tension and anxiety.
Even when your organizations, supervisors or team members encourage healthy debate or risk-taking, do you still hold back? If so, what can you do to create a more psychologically safe workplace? One that embraces a “got your back” “vs” “watch your back” culture? One that feels inclusive.
First, I define psychological safety as a belief that one’s voice, observations and contribution is vital, valued and must be expressed whether in the form of a question, concern, feedback or idea. This sense of safety allows for risk-taking and, yes, even making mistakes without the fear of being punished, embarrassed or the topic of gossip.
Second, psychological safety in the workplace is hardly a new concept. In fact, a two-year study conducted by Google’s Project Oxygen research reinforces that the most effective of work teams are those where workers feel the most psychologically safe. No surprise that many of the drivers in last year’s so-called “Great Resignation” included an “I give up” attitude of employees who had enough, more than enough, of workplace bullying, a lack of positive feedback, officious managers and co-workers never having their backs.
Third, Amy Edmonson a visionary who championed the concept in her book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth differentiates the difference between trust and safety: “although trust and psychological safety have much in common, they are not interchangeable concepts. The key difference is that psychological safety is experienced at a group level…Trust on the other hand refers to interactions between two individuals or parties; trust exists in the mind of an individual and pertains to a specific target individual or organization.”
With hybrid and remote work becoming the norm, creating environments that foster passionate debate and interpersonal risk taking have never been more necessary. Below are five strategies you can take whether you lead the team or are on the team to create a culture of psychological safety.
Start with an audit. Share the Google research with your team to gain buy-in for building a more collaborative, communicative and inclusive group. Following, send your team an anonymous 5 question survey assessment. Add the following open-ended question to the survey: How can we best practice psychological safety as a team? In other words, what would that look like, sound like and feel like if you were sitting in the room observing a meeting?
After collecting the results, gather and have someone read the following statement: Our goal for this meeting is to gain awareness of how we’re operating as a psychologically safe team and to discuss ways we can establish team practices, identify expectations, and hold each other accountable to create an environment where we all feel seen, heard and respected to better achieve our outcomes. Read aloud the survey results and discuss. Draw others out with deeper questions such as, “The results show that not everyone feels safe speaking up out of fear of being judged. How would our team benefit if everyone knew they’re safe to say anything and their views are valid?” “How can we make sure our busyness doesn’t impede this from happening?”
Co-create the solution. Leverage the data and suggestions submitted to develop a team agreement comprised of values, principles or behaviors that will support you in effectively communicating and holding each other accountable. Not an easy task, but worth the effort. Encourage members to visibly display their agreement to remain top of mind. One team I interviewed begins each meeting with a fast review of their agreement to reinforce desired behaviors. Remember, avoidance of tough topics only leads to more dysfunction and less safety.
Connect rather than compete. A classic challenge of smart, successful people is they like to be right and win. Unfortunately, this mindset doesn’t allow room for differing opinions, perspectives or seeking win-win solutions, If this is you (and you’re self-aware enough to own this truth), before immediately disregarding or diminishing someone’s input, take a pause. Ask yourself, “How can I demonstrate through my words and behaviors that I fully understand this situation and have this individual’s or the group’s best interest at heart?” Upon reflection, do you need to ask more questions or for additional data or examples to gain knowledge? Might there be an unconscious bias that drives your beliefs? How can you frame your feedback in a way that helps ensure your message will be heard, versus a team member hearing an attack on their ideas, identity or ego? Can you begin your comments by pointing out an area of agreement? Thoughtful word choice and empathetic listening can build connection and make others feel you’re not just out for selfish gain.
Choose curiosity and compassion all around. If teams are encouraged to speak up, chances are you might find yourself in the hotseat of unexpected feedback or pushback. When threatened, we often default to defensiveness or disengagement, even if the message was delivered respectfully. When I find myself triggered, I take a few deep breaths and remind myself to stay curious. What could I possibly learn about myself, the situation or the person providing this insight? Does the person providing feedback have the expertise or proximity to bring valuable insight? What skill can I practice in the moment to show others what it looks like to stay open minded and vulnerable? I silently give the person permission to awaken my awareness as an opportunity for self-growth. Following, I seek self-compassion and do my best to recognize I am human and far from perfect. NOT easy, but always the path to genuine connection.
And, equally important, hold the same space for others when they show up as less than perfect or make a mistake. Paul Santagata, the Head of Industry at Google says psychological safety is about not being punished when you make a mistake. We are all going from individual to team (in fact, hybrid almost demands it) and we must strive to look out for one another and empower one another. We are collaborators and not judge and juries of a co-worker who has stuck out her neck, took a risk and failed. For honestly, the next time around she may succeed beyond anyone’s expectations.
The old-school way of deriding the attempts of a co-worker who has tried or expressed an opinion or had an “out-of-the-box” idea, must give way to “curiosity.” The team, instead of openly chuckling, rolling their eyes or quickly dismissing the idea, should instead consider the why of it all, i.e. “Why do you feel there is another approach or solution or way of making the sale?” We must encourage the idea of nurturing curiosity. It leads to innovation and to taking an entirely new approach to the problem. If the team is in broad agreement about an approach or an issue, and there is an outlier who envisions an entirely new approach, to not listen, respect and consider could mean the loss of a tremendous opportunity.
Foster Connection in a Remote or Hybrid Environment. We need to know one another to build trust with one another. Therefore, I suggest you start or end every virtual team meeting with a connection activity. During this portion, cameras stay on to recreate the feeling of being together. With research from Biteable showing that 79.5% of people are missing the social aspect of work, we must build in these moments, rather than see them as wasted time given everyone’s level of activity. Ask a connection question such as, “What is one of the best concerts you’ve attended, and why did it have such an impact on you?” Or, relate the question to the workplace. For example, “What’s a current TV show, movie or podcast you’re watching or listening to, and how does that remind you of something happening at work?” Connection occurs when someone feels appreciated, validated and celebrated which is why it helps when organizations give employees tools and forums to recognize each other. With that said, a quick email or handwritten note to someone that helped you out or went above board doesn’t require a platform, just your time.
In a world of change, uncertainty and increased polarization, how uplifting would it be to show up at work knowing others have our back? How good would it feel to have a dinner conversation with your family discussing a productive, engaging work meeting where innovation and input flowed? As an “only” on your team, how encouraged would you be if someone validated your input? Let’s begin the journey together.