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Let’s Talk Psychological Safety: How to Improve Team Performance

Toby Graham /

We talk a lot about the physical aspects of worker safety and building a culture of safety through organizational compliance training and software, behavior modification, and teamwork. But building a team that’s willing to openly talk about mistakes, near misses, or new ideas calls for a different kind of safety—one where employees feel included, openly accepted, and safe from embarrassment, rejection, or fear that they’ll lose their status. Enter psychological safety.

Psychological safety is rooted in the premise that one won’t be punished for making a mistake, wrote Executive Coach, Stanford University Instructor and Founder of ChoosingHappiness.com Laura Delizonna, PhD, in an article authored for the Harvard Business Review (HBR) on high-performance teams. The idea is that by giving workers a forum for speaking their minds and a platform for offering their creative ideas for workplace solutions, they’ll be in a better position to collaborate with management rather than feel as though organizational leaders are their adversaries. And when people work together, they are more likely to achieve a mutually desirable outcome.

In the HBR article, Delizonna cited a quote from Google’s Head of Industry Paul Santagata where he said a team cannot exist without trust. Santagata found following a two-year study of team performance that psychological safety was the common link among the teams who performed the highest, Delizonna wrote.

There’s also another business case for psychological safety that relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. Granted each important initiative has its own distinct goals, but psychological safety and DEI also overlap in some harmonistic ways that can have a positive impact on your workplace culture. And while anytime is a good time to discuss psychological safety, it may be especially impactful to do so in the month of June—a time when LGBTQIA+ and Black communities recognize Emancipation Day, or Juneteenth, and the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Regardless of when you dive in, keep in mind that the main goal of your psychological safety-based efforts should be to create a workplace where everyone feels accepted, valued, and physically and emotionally safe.

The Positive Impacts of Psychological Safety

The benefits of psychological safety are akin to those organizations with a strong safety culture can experience. Where a robust safety culture exists, everyone has a sense of responsibility for safety that they pursue on a daily basis, and everyone works together to identify and correct unsafe working behaviors and conditions. With psychological safety, the focus is still on the employees but in a way that fosters an environment where they don’t feel anxiety or a fear of retaliation for challenging ideas, taking risks, and just being themselves.

And, as Delizonna noted, psychological safety enhances positive emotions of trust, respect, and confidence, which, in turn, can inject some humor, spark creativity, and lead to solutions. All of these can improve employee engagement and result in better work, safety, and business outcomes.

4 Ways to Build Psychological Safety & Inclusion

1. Practice active listening

Active listening is a key step in building an environment that’s inclusive and promotes psychological safety. To listen effectively means making a commitment to learning all you can from colleagues, Researcher Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, told the National Safety Council’s Safety+Health. This means paying close attention to workers’ concerns and their ideas. Edmondson recommended approaching the conversation in a way that shows you’re curious and that you want to learn. This approach, she said, helps people relax, giving them an invitation to offer their opinions in a safe way.

The key takeaway with active listening is to embrace it as your opportunity to learn. Set out to understand others’ ideas, thoughts, and perspectives. This will show your interest and can make employees feel at ease with expressing their thoughts more freely. And, in terms of how to accomplish this, here are some conversation starters:

  • What’s working for you?
  • What would you like to see improved?
  • What do you feel is lacking?

Listening can occur in a variety of ways, too—think anonymous employee surveys, facilitated workshops, and one-on-one meetups. Remember, the goal is to hear others’ thoughts, so this isn’t a time to offer up defenses to why safety measures and protocols are designed a certain way. Be prepared to really take in what you’re learning—the positive, the negative, and the indifferent.

2. Make sure your leadership cares, is committed, and wants to be inclusive

Recent research by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company (McKinsey) indicated that a command-and-control (authoritative) leadership style is detrimental to psychological safety. The good news is the McKinsey Global Survey, conducted at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2020, revealed an increased shift away from authoritative leadership. The experts responsible for developing and analyzing the survey results, which included Edmondson and several McKinsey consultants, indicated that consultative and supportive leadership styles promote psychological safety by focusing on positive team climates.

To achieve a positive team climate, ask:

  • Do team members value each other’s contributions?
  • Do team members have input into how their team carries out its duties (this, McKinsey reported, is the most important driver of a team’s psychological safety)?
  • Are leaders supportive and consultive with respect to these areas?

On the consultative front, do leaders:

  • Solicit their team’s input?
  • Consider their team’s views on issues that affect them?  

And on the supportive front, do leaders:

  • Demonstrate concern and support for their teams and each employee as an individual?

Also, keep “challenging leadership” on the radar, too, which encourages employees to reexamine assumptions about their work and how to perform their duties so they can realize their potential and exceed expectations, McKinsey noted.

The bottom line with respect to leadership: Here are 5 steps you’ll want to focus on:

  1. Create a positive team climate by taking a supportive and consultative approach.
  2. Challenge teams to excel and think outside of the box when addressing issues.
  3. Recognize that your ability to create an environment where psychological safety exists starts at the top, so make sure organizational leadership is modeling the behaviors that will ultimately promote inclusivity and respect.
  4. Foster leadership development at all levels of the organization to enhance psychological safety.
  5. Invest in leadership development experiences that challenge leaders’ current beliefs, assumptions, and emotions, as such exercises may lead to positive and lasting shifts in mindset that can foster self-awareness and fuel growth and performance.

By focusing on supportive and consultative leadership behaviors, you’re likely to see a boost in how employees rate leaders on inclusivity. Opening up a consistent two-way communication stream is also a good way to foster employees’ curiosity and respect toward one another. And it provides a valuable opportunity for leaders to reveal vulnerabilities in a healthy, humbling way so they can embrace conflicts in a collaborative and empathic manner.

3.  Be Authentic

Everything we’ve discussed so far needs to happen in an authentic way. Achieving psychological safety isn’t a “check the box” activity. And to help employees realize their potential and create and an inclusive and safe working environment, remember that the point of these interactions is to showcase value in one another and to reinforce that individuals should feel safe being their authentic selves. Work at getting your employees to understand that conforming to a group is not what you value: individual, creative thought is. Keep in mind, too, that given each worker’s unique background and experience, be ready to adapt your communication style so that workers aren’t put off and everyone feels safe and accepted for expressing their opinions.

4. Build a culture of deep respect

This means finding value in everyone’s opinions, regardless of whether you agree or not. In an article for Forbes, Jim Barnett, CEO and cofounder of employee-engagement platform Glint, noted that in addition to earning respect by ensuring that a non-defensive, honest feedback loop exists, it’s just as important to:

  • Build a culture of trust where leaders launch an open dialogue to promote engagement and build out safety processes.
  • Address conflicts head on with the goal of using disagreement as a way to find a better understanding of what others see as being an issue, show empathy for their respective positions, practice active listening, and find equitable ways to intervene to achieve a favorable (win-win) outcome.
  • Remove the words blame and criticism from your vocabulary, and instead, focus on articulating the facts that objectively relate to the underlying issue so you can steer clear of any drama and work told a solid solution.
  • Give leaders and employees occasion to celebrate when they take risks and stimulate open dialogue so everyone feels comfortable addressing some of the failures that invariably will occur.  No one is perfect, but together, through candid, non-confrontational conversations, a team can work through its challenges to set up policies and processes to avoid future pitfalls.

Following these steps will put you on a trust-building path to foster respect at every level of your organization and create a workplace where psychological safety can flourish.

All this talk about psychological safety presents a good opportunity to share

At KPA, we recognize that we can’t talk about these concepts without being self-reflective. We work hard at exhibiting our organization’s core values and deeply respecting each other. There is always room for improvement, and through our inclusion efforts, we hope to continue improving and building a workplace based on deep respect for each other, and inclusive of everyone’s experience, expertise, and insight. We would love to hear (and learn) from you on the ways in which your organization fosters trust and respect in your workplace. Join us in conversation by reaching out at kpa.io/contact-kpa.

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