Psychological Safety in the Workplace
According to Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” So what exactly does that mean? It means that individuals on a team feel as if they can be themselves. They feel they can ask questions. They can offer up suggestions. They can try new things. They can even make mistakes. Essentially, psychological safety is an environment created where team members feel safe to be themselves. Let’s look at why that’s important, why it doesn’t just happen automatically, and how to create it.
Why Psychological Safety is Important:
Have you ever been in a situation where you wanted to say something to somebody – but didn’t? Maybe you noticed food in somebody’s teeth and you wanted to tell them, but you didn’t want to embarrass them. Or you didn’t feel like you knew them well enough to walk up to them and point it out. Or maybe you’re not even sure why you didn’t say anything – you thought about it, then hesitated, then figured maybe somebody else would let them know. The problem with that is – you don’t really know if somebody else was going to let them know. This happens far too often in team settings. One person may have a great idea, but be too afraid to say something – thinking their boss won’t like the idea, or will shoot the idea down without even entertaining the suggestion. Another person may not feel comfortable speaking up, thinking: “What if it’s a bad idea? What if nobody likes it?” People are often too worried about what they may look like, or what would happen with their idea, than they are about making positive changes, and benefiting the team or company. So what happens when team members don’t offer up their ideas or make suggestions? – Nothing. Nothing happens. The problem with nothing happening within an organization is the organization will struggle to move forward. They can’t be strategic. They can’t move the organization along, because the team is doing the same thing they’ve always did because everybody is scared, shy, or too uncomfortable to offer up new ideas.
Why We Must Create a Culture of Psychological Safety:
Unfortunately, psychological safety doesn’t usually just happen automatically. Teams are usually made up of people from all different backgrounds, and at times, team members leave and new team members join the team. If you think about it – working on a team can be awkward. Have you ever joined a team where everybody knew each other, and you were the new person? It can be intimidating, causing the new person to not speak up, and act as their true self. Due to the different dynamics, the leader must actually create the culture of psychological safety. It should never be assumed that everybody is comfortable. The leader must be conscious of how they respond to team members’ ideas and mistakes, and go out of their way to include team members. Leaders should not only be willing to accept ideas, they must seek out ideas.
How to Create Psychological Safety:
Psychological safety begins with the team leader. It is the responsibility of the team leader to create an environment where team members feel safe. Where they feel like they can offer up ideas. Where they feel like they can make mistakes. Yes, I said mistakes. Nobody likes making mistakes. Most people are terrified to make a mistake. The reality is – we all make mistakes. When we are too scared to make a mistake, or come up with an idea that ends up being unsuccessful, we often feel embarrassed, and feel as if we let our team down. It is up to the leader to help the team understand that not all ideas will pan out how initially intended. Not all ideas will come to fruition. But that’s okay! When you try new things, even if they don’t work exactly how you want them to, there are usually lessons learned in the situation. When lessons are learned from mistakes, and an idea doesn’t end up being successful – it allows the team the opportunity to look at what went wrong, and work together to decide what needs to be fixed. Here are a few things leaders can do to help create psychological safety within their team:
1. Ask team members for advice
2. Let team members’ know their advice is valued (ex: listen to all advice, don’t criticize)
3. Admit your own mistakes to your team
4. Allow opportunities for team members to be creative
5. As a team, look at lessons learned from mistakes
6. Bring the team together to brainstorm ideas – don’t try to do everything yourself
7. Be accessible and approachable (ex: shorten lines of communication, open door policy, etc.)