The term psychological safety is bandied about a lot by business psychologists and cultural strategists. Historically, it’s always been linked to high performance in a team. Now, in an era of massive complexity and uncertainty thanks to Covid-19, we think it’s more important than ever. Here’s why – and what you can do about it.
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A few years ago, I stumbled upon a brilliant article in the New York Times about Google’s quest to build the perfect team. I can’t remember how I found it but I’ve never been able to forget it.
The story goes like this: The people at Google wanted to know if it was possible to engineer a high-performing team (after all, they are Google). They set out on a multi-million dollar, multi-year study of 180 of their teams under the banner ‘Project Aristotle’ to find what a high-performing team was made of… and for a long while, much to their frustration, they couldn’t find any patterns in the data.
One by one, all of their hypotheses about high-performing teams were disproved. High performance wasn’t a result of having the perfect mix of introverts and extroverts, or of putting a group of elite ‘A’ players together, or of creating the ideal balance in terms of diversity (which isn’t to say that this isn’t vitally important for other reasons – it’s just that high performance didn’t appear to be one of them).
Getting the ‘perfect’ blend of people together did not necessarily lead to a high performing team.
How group norms become a team’s normality
Eventually, after multiple dead ends, someone found some research about something called group norms – the behaviours, traditions and unwritten rules that govern how a group functions.
Norms can vary from being explicitly named and known in a team or implicitly understood, but either way their impact is profound. An individual who might behave a certain way in one context will often defer to the group’s way of doing things even if it’s quite different from their individual style or approach. Such is the draw of the what psychologists call the ‘in group.’
From there, Project Aristotle’s progress accelerated until eventually, the work of Harvard Business School professor, Amy Edmonson, was found.
If you’ve never heard of Amy Edmonson, let me give you a very quick introduction. She has spent years studying a concept that she coined as “psychological safety”, which she defined in 1999 as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, humiliate, reject or punish someone for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” She would later go on to say that psychological safety is “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
The Aristotle team at Google were pretty astonished to learn that psychological safety was an absolutely critical factor in terms of performance – and I was too. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I had something of a revelatory experience in discovering this concept. I’d spent much of my early life feeling unsafe, and knew intuitively that whenever I didn’t feel safe in a group, I’d ‘read the room’ and become a chameleon, adapting myself to mould and fit in with the people around me, not ever expressing myself fully or freely.
Unfortunately for my early employers, I took a lot of those behaviours into the workplace where sadly, they were reinforced. If you can’t relate to this, I bet you know someone who can.
Why feeling unsafe inhibits a team from performing at their best
When a person senses that they’re unsafe, the brain shifts gears and retracts into a much more primitive way of operating. After all, its primary purpose is to keep you alive., and a threat to belonging, for human beings, has historically meant a threat to your survival.
In dangerous situations (real or perceived), the prefrontal cortex essentially goes offline, and the amygdala – the small almond shaped epicentre of the fight/flight/freeze mechanism – kicks into gear, releasing both adrenaline and cortisol into the body.
Inn a group situation, a person perceives a sense of threat to their belonging, this can trigger the need to obstruct the group (fight), physically or psychologically leave (flight), or find ways to ‘camouflage’ yourself (freeze), often by falling in line with the status quo, not speaking up, or going silent. We are group animals, and the threat of not belonging for many of us is so powerful that it can override even our strongest desires to live and breathe our values.
This has dire consequences for organisations, especially in times like the ones we’re living in. People often become like sheep.
When people don’t feel safe, they don’t take risks. They don’t speak up, challenge the most dominant members or ideas in a group, or put their questions and complaints about why things are being done a certain way out in the open. The risks are too great – ostracism, humiliation, even the fear of losing your job.
Instead, people turn to a range of defensive strategies. Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey call this hiding, lying and faking – and they argue that most people are doing this a lot of the time at work.
A person in a culture that doesn’t nurture psychological safety will put on a metaphorical mask and suit of armour to navigate their way through the day. Not only is this a massive drain on resources (Kegan and Lahey talk about how most people are “doing a second job no one is paying them for”), but it also kills anything remotely creative, forces people to walk on eggshells, tells them in overt and subtle ways that they can’t be trusted to get on and do their jobs, or flat out has them working in a state of anxiety, fear or even terror.
I’d go as far to posit that much of the workplace stress, depression and anxiety that is prevalent in the world today is connected to a lack of psychological safety. If for example people feel that they can’t be honest about when they’ve got too much on their plate, they’re going to become susceptible to burning out through overwork.
Or, to offer a second example scenario, if people don’t feel that they can challenge the work they’re being asked (or told) to do, if their own ideas, agency and creativity are only partly utilised, it’s hardly surprising that they end up feeling deeply disengaged.
A third example would be a business that is led by someone who is all ego and no heart. If it’s all about the leader and if their own hubris and position are their primary concern, you can expect to see people feeling so stressed and frustrated that they keep their heads down at best or get signed off sick or quit at worst.
What happens when psychological safety is present?
So that’s the fairly bleak picture about what happens when psychological safety is absent.
But on the other hand, when it is consciously cultivated and nurtured, there are certain key behaviours that consistently show up:
- People will stick their necks out. They’ll take risks even though they might fail, look stupid in front of their peers, leaders or reports. They’ll risk making mistakes because they’ll know from experience that it will help them and everyone around them learn and grow and that they won’t be humiliated or somehow punished.
- People will trust each other and feel trusted. So, so many adults – skilled, talented people with so much to offer the world – feel stifled, under-utilised and bored at work thanks to terrible management and a lack of trust. It really doesn’t have to be this way.
- Enormous levels of energy and creativity will get freed up. The time and effort put into playing politics, watching your back, walking on eggshells, conforming and swallowing your suggestions will be free to be channelled into new projects and ways of working.
- There will be higher levels of genuine engagement and a sense of belonging.
- People will willingly contribute their energy to projects due to greater sense of ownership over mission, vision, purpose and values.
- You’ll see greater commitment and loyalty to the manager and the organisation. As the saying goes, people don’t leave crappy jobs, but crappy bosses and toxic cultures.
- Turnover might even decrease. After all, it’s pretty compelling to work somewhere that values your input, wants your voice in the room, invites you to speak up and challenge and grow and allows you to take risks and make mistakes.
In volatile, uncertain times, the above outcomes are, I’d argue, not just important, but essential.
What leaders need to do
In theory, creating psychological safety is simple, but in practice, it takes a lot of mental toughness, self-awareness, vulnerability and openness.
It needs leaders who:
- Are highly self-aware leaders who are willing to do the hard, sometimes embarrassing work of admitting their mistakes;
- Are willing to proactively use their role and position in the company to facilitate the voices of others;
- Are open to repeatedly acknowledging their own fallibility;
- Will model curiosity.
All very doable, but often hard if you’ve got leaders who are themselves anxious to prove their value, hooked into control, or driven by ego.
In a world where organisations large and small need to be able to pivot fast (as we saw earlier in 2020 when the world turned upside down overnight), trying to function, let alone thrive, without psychological safety is pretty disastrous.
One final thought: Coronavirus aside, we are seeing countless people drowning in busyness, totally overstretched, overwhelmed and close to burnout across a range of sectors and in organisations large and small.
Things are not going to change unless people are given the space, encouragement and permission to think creatively, bring their whole selves to the table, speak up when they see something happening that they don’t understand or disagree with, and challenge themselves and those around them.
Now more than ever, organisations need teams of people who can scrutinise and think critically and divergently about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how it’s getting done. Your people probably have these underlying abilities, but the culture and way you’re working together might not be allowing these to come to the fore – and if people don’t feel safe to take risks along the way, you’re leaving a lot untapped potential by the wayside.
You can choose to ignore the problem, or to tackle it. If you’d like expert input and support, we are here to help.
If you want greater clarity on what you can do now and next, click here to download our research-based two-pager on Psychological Safety for free.
We offer a range of services to help assess and cultivate psychological safety at the individual, team and organisational levels. Reach out to us if you want to arrange an initial conversation about any of these or contact firstname.lastname@example.org