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This comprehensive post is designed to inspire you to shift from an atmosFEAR of Silence to an atmosphere of Safety.
Have you ever been surprised at work?
Not in the “Becky bought me a cake for my birthday!” sort of way, but more in the “Why am I just learning now that we won’t hit our Q3 goals?” sort of way.
Office birthday parties aside, most surprises in the workplace should be considered a warning sign. Even theoretically good surprises like landing an unexpected client or shockingly operating under budget should at least give you pause. Why?
Because surprises are an indication that feedback is not flowing as freely as it should be in your team. You should know your odds at every turn. There’s a difference between something having a low percentage chance of happening only to defy those odds versus being surprised that it actually happened. If you don’t know the difference in your team it’s because someone somewhere is not speaking up or someone somewhere else, is not daring to ask the right questions.
The highest performing teams across all businesses have one thing in common: psychological safety. They are free of surprises because they are full of unfettered feedback. This resource guide is for those looking to increase the performance of their team, and who feel increasing psychological safety may hold the answer for them. Whether you are a leader who is tired of being surprised or you’re a team member who is looking for a framework to increase the flow of feedback, you will find it here.
We’ll cover why psychological safety matters, why you may be struggling with it in your team, what you need to know to understand it, what you need to do to create it, as well as how your own human nature stands to act against you as you try and build an inclusive and safe place for your team to operate.
Have you ever wondered what makes the perfect team? Google did and they studied over 15,000 employees over a 5 year period to find out. The researchers found that of the five key dynamics of effective teams they identified, psychological safety was by far the most important.
But what is psychological safety? The most accepted definition is, “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Can you ask a question on your team without being made to feel stupid? Can you own a mistake without it harming your reputation? Can you hold someone else accountable without being branded a jerk? If you have ever not asked a question, not made a comment, or not intervened on a key decision out of a conscious or unconscious fear that this action would be held against you, you have experienced a low level of psychological safety.
The idea of working on a team that allows you to both ask questions and be questioned in a highly constructive way sounds incredibly appealing. In reality, it's far more than that, it's nearly essential. Over the past two decades, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more. This is largely due to the fact that collaboration has been proven to be an essential element of successful innovation while innovation has fast proven to be an essential element of outright survival. Consider:
- 8 out of 10 executives believe their current business model is at risk of being disrupted, making innovation a must.
- Of the 30,000 innovations attempted each year, 95% of them fail.
- Of the 5% of innovators who succeed the common denominator among them is a tactical level of collaboration in their teams.
- 86% of leaders cite lack of collaboration as the primary factor in all workplace failures.
For even more insight into the stats above download The Collaboration Economy. You'll learn why collaboration matters, the macro-level forces that have it under threat, and receive two free assessments that will tell you how susceptible your team may be to these once in a generation changes.
Innovation is now a requirement of business. Collaboration is a requirement of innovation. What you'll soon learn is that psychological safety is a requirement of collaboration. In short, enter the next decade of your business's lifecycle without a conscious focus on psychological safety and you are assuming some very real and unnecessary risk.
Psychological safety is essential. Unfortunately for many teams, it is also elusive.
To see why psychological safety can be so difficult, look no further than what you’re wearing right now.
Whether you realize it or not, the clothes you are wearing, the make-up you decided to either apply or not apply, the beard you chose to grow out or shave, the hair you neatly tucked in place or left purposely disheveled was all done thanks to an unconscious program tasked with managing the impression you wish others to have of you. Even if you are saying to yourself right now, “I don’t care what others think”, know that your state of dress is at least partially designed to tell everyone how little you care about what they think, which by default is a management of your appearance.
This unconscious program, known as impression management, lies within all of us. As Dr. Amy Edmondson states: “people are (both conscious and unconscious) impression managers – reluctant to engage in behaviours that could threaten the image others hold of them”. In short, what others think of us matters enough that it has the power to alter our behaviour.
Once again, there will be some of you who are currently saying, “I truly do not care what others think of me”. We are not questioning whether or not you believe this. We are asking you however to question how much you believe it. Impression management lies on a spectrum, it is not binary. There is not a group of people that fundamentally does not care what others think of them and a camp that does. Rather, there are degrees to which you impression manage. A major variable in this equation is your level of emotional intelligence. However, your environment plays an equally sizeable role, and it is your environment, most specifically your work environment, that we are addressing here.
Recall that the definition of psychological safety is the degree to which a team feels safe for interpersonal risk taking. As members of a work team you face countless small risks to your image daily. As Dr. Edmondson states in the paper referenced above, this interpersonal risk includes asking questions, seeking help, experimenting with unproven actions and seeking feedback. She goes on to say that most people feel a need to “manage this risk to minimize harm to their image, especially in the workplace and especially in the presence of those who formally evaluate them.”
The workplace is unique relative to most other environments given that it is a place where you are constantly being evaluated, consciously and unconsciously, formally and informally, in an ongoing manner, by peers, subordinates and leaders alike. Everyone on a team feels this constant state of evaluation meaning everyone will be engaged, to varying degrees, in impression management. The degree to which they feel compelled to alter their behaviour to protect their image is directly correlated to the response they get each and every time they take an interpersonal risk by 'putting themselves out there'.
You can see where the more collaboration required of you and your team, the more interpersonal risk you will need to take as you are forced to ask more questions, seek more assistance and receive more feedback. In other words, if collaboration is optional on your team, then congratulations, so too is psychological safety. Just know we are all doing business in a VUCA world and when you are faced with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity all before lunch, we argue that collaboration is far from optional.
Compounding this is another element everyone on your team has in common, a human brain.
Fear is the most powerful human motivator and it would be foolish to not acknowledge this fact when trying to create safety within a team. Consider the graphic below:
Your brain is governed by a set of laws that are largely tied to your survival. It is self-centred, it seeks instant gratification and it craves certainty over truth. Consider our early ancestors and how they needed to perceive a ‘rustle in the bushes’.
Fleeing without question ensured their safety (self-centred), gave it to them immediately (instant gratification) and did not allow for pondering (the certainty that the rustle was something that would hurt them was more important to their survival than the truth that it may be something else).
Now apply these same three laws to someone debating between Speaking Up and Standing Down at work and you can see how silence can be seductive. When you Speak Up it is often to benefit the group, the reward for providing that feedback takes time to be seen and you really have no certainty that it will even result in a reward. Conversely when you Stand Down, YOU avoid pain, that makes YOU feel better and you KNOW the pain has been avoided.
Speaking up requires you to face fear that your brain was engineered to try and avoid. The desire to stay silent is not a character flaw, it is a product of millions of years of evolution.
Telling your people to simply 'be brave' is a flawed strategy as fear will override the best of intentions. You need a more strategic approach. The approach we recommend has three components: Establishing Purpose, Redefining Failure and Understanding Conflict. Each of these will be covered in detail below but before we do that, you need to be armed with some basic terminology.
Before we cover the basics of establishing psychological safety within your team, it is important to have a basic understanding of some of the most relevant terms as well as the key takeaways associated with each.
Information about reactions to a person's performance of a task, which is used as a basis for improvement.
The difference between feedback, which enhances team performance, and criticism, which erodes it, is the type of reaction the person receives, the degree to which the information they are given is focused on the task they completed as opposed to them as a person, and how well they can use the information to actually improve. If any of these three elements are poor or missing, then you do not have feedback, you have something much worse.
In psychological terms, trust is the belief that a person will behave as expected.
Trust and psychological safety are often confused as being the same when they are not. Psychological safety focuses on a belief about a group norm, while trust focuses on a belief that one person has about another. In short, you can have trust between two individuals but still lack safety in the team.
There are four primary fears that cause team members to withhold feedback and input: a fear of being seen as ignorant, a fear of being seen as incompetent, a fear of being seen as negative and a fear of being seen as disruptive.
None of these fears is higher in order or strength than another. Each stands to erode team performance therefore leaders must take steps to ensure all four are rendered inert within their teams.
Failure refers to an inability for a team or an individual member of that team, to deliver upon a desired or intended objective.
Failure is highly contextual and must be dealt with accordingly. Without this context it can quickly grow to be seen as a universally 'bad' thing, causing team members to both avoid it and hide instances of it for fear of repercussion. Hiding failure, or more importantly information that indicates it is likely, is the antithesis of psychological safety.
Any disagreement that occurs between two or more people.
When it comes to team dynamics conflict should be considered to have two types: task conflict and relationship conflict. Task conflict is any disagreement about the goal or the content of the work. Relationship conflict covers all other interpersonal conflict.
The accepted group norms regarding conflict and communication. These can be either explicit or implicit in nature.
The highest performing teams have high acceptance of task conflict and low acceptance of relationship conflict. In other words, everyone expects their work to be questioned (people proactively agree to set aside defensiveness when it comes to their work), yet the team has zero tolerance for personal disputes (the second conflict feels personal, the team agrees to shut it down).
The degree to which a team believes that conflict can be resolved when it occurs.
The primary factor that allows for a team to have conflict in general is the shared belief that the conflict can be resolved no matter how large it is. Teams who fear that conflict will escalate into larger emotional issues tend to avoid conflict altogether, even when it is seen as essential to achieving a goal.
With luck you've received a few new ideas in reading this post, and you're growing convinced that psychological safety is a worthwhile pursuit. Ideas are common. Execution is rare. With that in mind we now turn our attention to helping you implement safety within your teams and this is a matter of doing three things: Establishing Purpose, Redefining Failure and Understanding Conflict.
We've already discussed the motivating power of fear and how it is hardwired into every member on your team. Establishing safety is therefore all about changing their relationship with fear. Over time, and with practice, you will all learn how to alter your responses to workplace triggers, collectively reducing the feeling that someone is taking an interpersonal risk by adding their perspective. Much of the mechanics of this will be covered below when we discuss Failure and Conflict.
You need a catalyst to get started however. Most teams are full of people who very much do feel they are taking an interpersonal risk by speaking up. The first step in establishing safety is to help provide incentive for them to override that first pang of anxiety or insecurity. You must find a way to make the interpersonal risk you are asking them to take by speaking up seem small, and therefore less meaningful, in comparison to something else. You will have that catalyst once you establish Purpose.
Purpose is the extent to which people experience life as being directed and motivated by valued life goals. By definition purpose should be considered something 'bigger' than the individual. Establishing it within a team requires the "3 D's".
Your team must be making an impact that goes beyond generating a profit. Realizing this impact must be meaningful enough that your people are willing to set aside the fear that drives their impression management once they realize it is getting in the way of the team accomplishing this larger goal.
You must clearly state how delivering on this stated mission will not be easy. You must show that the only way to overcome this difficulty is through vigilance, that even one missed opportunity to contribute to the mission has a consequence. By showing how even a single act of silence can ensure the purpose is not achieved, your team members will be able pause every time their interpersonal fear pops up, refocus, and act appropriately.
Desirability and Difficulty can now be converted into Determination. You have successfully helped your people see their interpersonal fear as small in comparison to the chance of your organization's purpose going unfulfilled, therefore allowing them to overcome this now smaller fear by focusing on contributing to the mission.
Dr. Edmondson speaks often of psychological safety in healthcare settings and we find these examples to be incredibly instructive. Say for instance a nurse witnesses a doctor making someone feel foolish when they asked a question. Later, the nurse is assisting the doctor with a patient and sees that the doctor is about to administer an incorrect dosage of medicine. The nurse wants to say something, but feels unsafe doing so based on what she witnessed the last time someone asked the doctor a question. So, rather than speaking up, the nurse rationalizes silence by assuming the doctor must know what she is doing, after all she went to school for longer than the nurse and has been in her position at the hospital for a long time. Unfortunately, the nurse was correct, the dosage was wrong, and the patient's health is put at risk as a result. Here the nurse's fear of being made to look ignorant or incompetent overrode the impulse to give feedback to the doctor, resulting in harm befalling the patient.
Establishing Purpose helps build a foundation to prevent this. Had the leader of this team clearly stated that the purpose of their work was to save lives (Desirable), that saving lives would be hard because of the long hours worked leading to lapses in attention and the chaos of the hospital leading to distractions (Difficult) and that because of this everyone needed to be vigilant in spotting errors that they may not be aware of, the reality of harming a patient is positioned as much larger than the fear of being made to look foolish. This would have helped the nurse to override the fear of the interpersonal risk needed to question the doctor about the dosage (Determination) as the nurse would not be risking her own image so much as she would be refusing to allow the mission of saving lives to be compromised.
Again, we find the healthcare examples instructive because it's easy to see 'saving lives' as a meaningful purpose. You may not have the luxury of your purpose being as easy to spot based on your industry. That doesn't mean your company lacks purpose, nor does it absolve you of the need to discover it. If you're struggling right now to figure your what your purpose is you may find some insight here and here .
While Establishing Purpose may be effective in getting people to speak up initially, the response they receive will determine if they continue to speak up when needed. It is not enough to merely leverage fear in a healthy way to help people overcome their interpersonal risks, you must also work to reduce the fear of taking that risk over time. One way to do this by Redefining Failure.
Remember back to the terminology section when failure was defined as "an inability for a team or an individual member of that team, to deliver upon a desired or intended objective". The takeaway from this was that without context, failure can quickly grow to be seen as a universally 'bad' thing, causing team members to both avoid it as well as hide instances of it, for fear of repercussion. Hiding any information, including failure or information of a pending failure, is a suppression of feedback, something we are trying to eliminate by establishing psychological safety.
Redefining Failure, provides the context needed to prevent it from being avoided outright. To do this you need to know the three types of failure, as well as the optimal response each requires to keep failure from being seen as something harmful.
An Avoidable Failure is defined as a deviation from a proven or accepted process or system. It is caused by a lack of attention or skill, or often a behavioural blindspot.
The response to this must be Education. You must address the lack of skill or attention by showing the person who committed the failure what they should have done instead, along with how to do it and why it matters that they do it this way. Addressing blindspots is a matter of growing this person's emotional intelligence, again something that very much can be taught.
A Novel Failure is defined as an accepted process or system failing when exposed to a new or unforeseen variable. It is caused by a deficiency in the process or system itself as opposed to the person executing it.
The response here must be Investigation. You must learn where the cracks in the process are so that you can correct them and prevent this type of new failure from occurring ever again.
An Exploratory Failure is an unsuccessful trial. It is the result of experimentation and calculated risk taking.
The response here must be Celebration. Every failed trial results in learnings that make future trials better. You must create an excitement when it comes to exploring new work to continue to foster the type of innovation we have already established as critical. You do this by celebrating the outcome, no matter what that outcome is.
Remember: Education, Investigation, Celebration but never Condemnation. Failure cannot be seen as a bad thing if you want your people to try new things and be forthright with you when other things are not going as planned. Avoiding surprises is paramount and by now you should see how safety and surprises are opposing forces. If your people know they will be met with one of the first three words above and never the fourth, slowly but surely you will begin to reduce the fear that's attached to failure.
It may sound counter intuitive but when it comes to creating a healthy workplace, conflict is an essential ingredient. To understand why, let's look at growing psychological safety in your team as if your were trying to grow your own physical fitness.
Similar to physical fitness, psychological safety is not something to be achieved it is something to be maintained. Suppose you are out of shape. You begin a workout regimen & diet and slowly but surely your fitness level begins to improve. If you were to stop going to the gym, and were to start routinely cheating on your diet, it would not take long before your fitness began to suffer, and all of the ills that come with poor fitness begin to impact you again.
Growing psychological safety in a team is very similar. It requires the same daily focus and vigilance and is subject to the same decay soon after you stop. All we are hoping to propose with this post are the "sets & reps" that if executed, will ensure a high degree of safety is maintained once established. Our aim with this is to demystify 'the workout' in the hopes it helps you actually stick to it.
Now when you exercise, you are putting your body under strain. The resistance you feel when lifting a weight taxes the muscle. Your muscle's response, assuming it gets the rest and nutrition it needs post-exercise, is to grow stronger in order to handle this resistance in the future. Workout consistently and increase the resistance progressively and the muscle will continue to respond by getting stronger and stronger.
Within your team, conflict is the resistance. Growth comes from the tension of ideas being challenged.
Remember our tagline all the way back at the beginning of this post? Psychological safety is not the absence of conflict, but rather the ability to have it in a safe way. Conflict is essential because if you are not having it, you're not growing, and in business, if you're not growing you're dying. Psychological safety simply creates the environment that allows for that growth to happen 'without injury'. It's like an automatic spotter that never leaves your side. (Extending this analogy, consider Servant Leadership to be the equivalent of the best performance enhancing supplement in the world).
That doesn't mean you should start courting conflict blindly. If you were committed to growing your physical fitness you would design the right workout so that A) it was optimized to help you reach your goals and B) so that you didn't hurt yourself by lifting beyond your means. So too you must 'design conflict' and the elements of that design are: Conflict Types and Conflict Norms.
Back in the terminology section we defined conflict as any disagreement that occurs between two or more people and stated that there were two types: Task Conflict and Relationship Conflict.
Task Conflict is any disagreement about the goal or the content of the work while relationship conflict covers all other instances of interpersonal conflict.
When you begin openly discussing failure in your team, no matter how well you position it, conflict will occur. Similar to failure, we do not want conflict to fall into the trap of being universally viewed as a 'bad' thing or it will be avoided outright. Avoid conflict entirely and you will rob your team of the resistance needed for growth. Therefore, as with Redefinding Failure, conflict must be repositioned within your team. It must become normalized. You do this by establishing rules (Conflict Acceptance) and setting expectations (Resolution Potential).
Normalizing conflict is a proactive measure. It requires setting very clear rules and expectations relative to conflict and sharing them across the entire team.
As referenced in the terminology section, high performing teams have high acceptance of task conflict and low acceptance of relationship conflict. Again this means everyone expects their work to be questioned (people proactively agree to set aside defensiveness when it comes to their work), yet the team has zero tolerance for personal disputes (the second conflict feels personal, the team agrees to shut it down). Essentially work and training are done to ensure that everyone can tell the difference between, "I don't like that idea", versus, "I don't like you because of your idea".
The simplest way to think of this is to view conflict like cholesterol; there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. If you don't have enough good cholesterol, you have a problem. If you have too much bad cholesterol, you have a different problem.
If you don't have enough task conflict in your team you are running the risk that feedback is being limited and innovation and productivity will suffer. If you have too much relationship conflict, you are running the risk that fear will take over and psychological safety will suffer. As a leader, you must understand the difference and ensure the right mix.
One of the ways to do this is to ensure everyone knows that no matter what type or amount of conflict happens within the team, you will not let it spill over into something truly detrimental.
Once again, resolution potential is the degree to which a team believes that conflict can be resolved when it occurs. It's the workplace equivalent of agreeing to 'never go to bed angry'. The more confident a team is that the team has the tools and desire to address any form of conflict when it occurs, the more comfortable they are having it because their fear of it has been successfully neutralized.
Once you help your team understand conflict, they can begin to court it, and once that happens, and happens safely, you will have all of the growth you can possibly handle.
To review, healthy conflict is an essential element of a team's ability to innovate and given that every company needs to innovate to survive , every team must learn how to have conflict. Psychological safety is simply one element that allows for it to happen as often as it needs to. Understand that your company is the product of the compound effect of every decision made, by every person you employ, over every minute they are with you. To illustrate this, consider the image below:
Each small circle represents a moment of conflict. Those who have Safety will use the conflict to propel them higher. Those who embrace Silence will allow conflict to be the reason they take a step down. Given that Safety is not something to be achieved but rather maintained, this 'rise vs fall' choice will occur each and every time conflict emerges. Again, multiply this out over every person on your team, over every day each of them is on that team, over each moment of conflict they may face and ask yourself where you'll wind up. Will your Safety lead to unbridled Engagement or will your collective Silence ensure your eventual Extinction?
Your results explain your past. Your trajectory tells your future. The power to change your trajectory is in your hands.
Of course not only is the power to change your trajectory in your hands, it's in your "head" and your "heart" too. Human nature complicates the majority of processes and systems designed to help the human in question. Often, this is where we at CultureSmith are invited in by leaders, to help them override their own biases and blindspots to execute on theories whose logic they get, but whose application they do not wish to leave to chance. If you think this may be you, we'd love to hear from you.
Regardless, the complications that people tend to burden themselves with can be broken down into the three buckets of human personality: Values, Behaviours and Emotions.
Values are unique in that they represent the part of your personality that is least likely to change over time. You can learn to become more patient. You can learn to become more self-aware. What tends to remain rigid over time are your beliefs regarding what’s right and wrong and how ‘good’ people should conduct themselves. Those beliefs represent your values.
When two people do not share the same values, they tend to view each other on a spectrum from, “I think that person is wrong” to “I think that person is dangerous”. Now, picture yourself being surrounded by people whom you unconsciously view to be dangerous. How would your behaviour change?
The point is if you have a sizable number of people on your team who are not aligned with the values of your organization, they will feel unsafe. They will feel compelled to act out. It's a phenomenon we refer to as 'noble insubordination', the belief that someone is 'fighting the good fight' by being disruptive.
If psychological safety is the foundation for performance then values alignment is the foundation for psychological safety.
It is difficult if not impossible to make the shift from Silence to Safety without a deep understanding of behaviours.
Behaviours represent our hard-coded preferences and drive the majority of our actions and reactions.
Not all behavioural types experience safety the same way. For example, Yellows are more sensitive to the fear of being seen as ignorant while Reds are more prone to the fear of being seen as incompetent. You could create an environment that is safe for one profile yet not another.
Conflict too gets complicated without knowledge of behaviours. We've shown how essential task conflict is. Well Blues by their very nature are protective of their tasks meaning they can easily perceive authentic task conflict AS relationship conflict while Greens dislike conflict of all types.
In short, behaviours are influential. Learning the behavioural profiles of your team prior to beginning any discussion regarding safety is therefore a recommended step. Not only will it ensure you build the program to suit your team, knowing your people's behavioural profiles will increase the effectiveness of the instruction as well.
Picture yourself faced with one of the interpersonal risks we've discussed in this post. Now picture yourself needing to take that risk at the end of a long day versus first thing in the morning after a great night's sleep.
Picture needing to take that risk on the heels of someone openly criticising your work in front of the team versus after a period of reflection. Think your reactions, not to mention your ability to access what you've learned here may differ? (Spoiler alert, they will).
The emotional part of the brain is both the oldest and largest. Emotions must therefore be included in any conversation about human interaction.
Psychological safety is important. We would not have dedicated this entire post to it if it were not. It is however not enough. You must actively grow the emotional intelligence of your team in order to increase the odds they will actually apply what we've laid out here.
As we said, human nature complicates all processes and systems designed to help humans. What you've read here is theory, application requires commitment, empathy and expertise.
We'd love to help you in that regard if you'd like. Learn how our Functional & Frictional ValuesTM will help you identify who stands to feel unsafe in your organization no matter what you do, and how we demystify both Behaviours and Emotions to allow you to maintain safety using our WorkplaceEQTM program.
If there's one thing we hope you've taken away from this it's that Psychological Safety matters. the good news is, help is a Zoom call away. Book your free, 30min, no-obligation call with one of our experts below, and we will take you through a 7 question assessment that will tell you exactly how safe your team currently is, as well as some free advice on how to get started on improving it.
Those who embark on all 6ShiftsTM To An Uncommon Culture will be successful in turning their company into a place people care about.
They will also wind up with something they need to fiercely protect each and every time they hire.
To learn 'The 7th Shift': how to shift your hiring process from Adding Bodies to Multiplying Engagement, make sure to check-out out HireEQTM page.