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Psychological Safety – Where Are You Without It?


Whether it is a bright idea, feedback, a suggestion for improvement, or your own feelings of distress or vulnerability? Be assured you aren’t alone, nor is this a new phenomenon.

The sustained feeling of being unsafe at work can lead to debilitating anxiety and depression, sleeplessness, poor relationships and diminishing performance. Here are a few pointers to make a difference, based on experience of what works, coupled with research.

I’m not talking about being outside your comfort zone, that zone where you’re uneasy and saying or doing something takes courage, but isn’t so stressful that you cannot function. Nor am I talking about those early stages of joining a healthy team or group where we need to feel a sense of belonging, to learn “how things work”, before we are safe enough to feel included.

I’m referring to those work groups that couldn’t genuinely call themselves a team because the lack of safety is not a phase, it’s an on-going state. Groups and relationships where saying what is really going on is not encouraged, and when it is, it is ignored, downplayed or even punished.

From surveys in many settings, this experience is widespread. Is it any wonder that this is the most studied area of group and team dynamics? A wave of interest in this topic has resurged over the last few years, with ‘psychological safety’ the most recent name for the phenomenon. Wikipedia defines it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected.”

A study at Google found that what really sets great teams apart is the level of psychological safety. This discovery was not straightforward. The researchers began by looking at the composition of groups, but couldn’t find any patterns in the data. The big surprise to the researchers was that soft skills, or human relations skills, were more important in the creation of successful teams than who was on the team.

The researchers learned that there are five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google, and the first one is not just a little ahead of the second but streets ahead:

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  3. Structure and clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans in our team clear?
  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

The two critical behaviours in the early stages of developing a team that feels safe were found to be ensuring that everyone speaks as much as they need to (conversational turn-taking), and each member is sensitive to others’ feelings (average social sensitivity). However, if a person’s early comments are dismissed or diminished it is easy to establish a dysfunctional pattern. Once a norm of not rocking the boat becomes entrenched, it takes serious effort to resolve it.

What can leaders do?

Explicitly articulate and encourage the norms they want the team to adopt.

Model the behaviours, not just talk about them, especially when it comes to creating a climate of psychological safety.

What can a team member do to nurture team safety?

Teams are leaderful social systems in which each member plays a role in sustaining or changing the team’s direction.

Start small. Take small risks.

Set the norms. Find opportunities to agree how you might work together more effectively by deciding your shared behaviours. You can download a free pdf of Fostering Psychological Safety in Your Teams for some ideas that you might introduce.

Gently challenge one another or contribute a new idea. Ask someone else to bring their knowledge, even when (or especially when) you think it might challenge your own thinking. When we think that our expertise is valued, good things happen.

Acknowledge and appreciate a team member who takes a risk – offers a new idea, admits an error, asks a question. This is a powerful tactic for inspiring others. This is especially important in diverse teams, where members may not share similar assumptions and experiences.

What can the organisation do?

Consider a self and peer review approach to discover the extent to which psychological safety is an issue.

Affirm the need for psychological safety as a pre-requisite for effective working.

Equip team leaders and team members with the skills of effective group and team working. The Oasis Seven Stage Model is one approach that makes a difference.

Name the issue and give it attention, for example, encourage those who attended the RAW Network seminar on addressing psychological hazards to share their insights with other staff members.

Despite the evidence, and the experience that these approaches work, many leaders and organisations continue to give insufficient time and development for people to prioritise them. Neither do leaders equip themselves with the necessary human relations skills. Yet small changes can create team rewards, for example, better decisions, motivated members and improved performance.

About Nick Ellerby – Nick has spent over thirty years listening to and helping people who feel unsafe in their workplace and at specific times in their life, and has led organisations and services that respond directly to the needs of individuals and groups that feel isolated or depressed as a result.

With colleagues at Oasis he has provided guidance to organisations that don’t simply want to offer remedial support, but to positively shape approaches and cultures that improve the levels of respect and safety experienced by people in the organisation. And just like everyone else he has had his own experiences of feeling scared to contribute, fearful of rejection or being too alone, or terrified of the consequences of challenging power and therefore holding back.