Psychological safety is the ability to speak, act and contribute within the workplace without the fear that that you will be penalised for speaking up.
It is important as it plays a key role in the development of relationships, enables diversity of thought, and ultimately results in better decision-making.
Put simply, without psychological safety, a team will not be able to achieve high performance.
Psychological safety is the gateway to higher, more open levels of communication. Without strong levels of psychological safety throughout the team, individuals are less likely to contribute during group discussions and the decision-making process. What results is the decision-making power resides within 1, usually the boss, or 2 people.
The downsides of this are two-fold: it prevents a good idea from snowballing into a great idea through people building on each other’s ideas. It also means that team members who haven’t felt safe enough to contribute may not be fully aligned with the decision and are therefore less likely to champion these ideas going forward.
By contrast, a team with high levels of psychological safety will involve all members within discussion regardless of expertise or seniority. By this process ideas evolve and grow, resulting in a team decision that is more than just the sum of the individuals.
Ultimately, it is this willingness to be vulnerable and manage conflict in a constructive way that serves as the X factor between good and great organisations.
There’s no quick fix for building psychological safety within a team, but here are 4 guiding principles that all trust-based teams should live by:
Assess your current trust levels and ensure you have a base of dependability-based trust.
There are two levels of trust, dependability-based and vulnerability-based. Dependability-based trust is faith in the competency of your team. In its most simple form, it is the idea that if you ask a team member to complete a task, they will be do so.
It is at the second level of vulnerability-based trust where psychological safety becomes a factor. At this level, team members are willing to put their ideas forward with the expectation that they may be challenged and their ideas built upon. However, this level cannot be achieved without first establishing a strong base of dependability-based trust throughout the team.
MAKE TIME FOR PERSONAL CONNECTION…
In order to move your levels of trust from dependability-based to vulnerability-based, it is important that there is a level of personal connection between team members. They way team members interact each other defines the nature of the relationship. Since transactional relationships only deal with work-related tasks, they will not encourage team members to be vulnerable with each other.
Therefore, purely transactional relationships serve as a barrier to psychological safety as individuals are not encouraged to contribute.
Any team member can begin to form these personal relationships, but it is most powerful when actioned by the team leader.
… but don’t just leave it to team building days.
Team-building days serve as great opportunities for colleagues to connect with each other on a personal level outside of a working environment. They make important steps towards building a foundation of trust within teams.
Where they fall short is that team development takes time. Creating psychological safety is not a tick-box exercise, but a journey teams must go through if they want to reap the benefits of having a high performing team. A team coach is one of the most effective ways to create a high performing team.
Setting up deliberate routines to carve space for personal connections ensures that incremental steps are consistently taken to building and maintaining vulnerability-based trust. This will create an inclusive environment deliberately designed to promote psychological safety.
Encourage contribution from everyone, or risk excluding more introverted team members.
“If you’re not being actively inclusive, you risk being passively exclusive”
Dr. Timothy Clark, a leading expert in psychological safety, argued that even in a team with higher levels of trust and personal connection naturally introverted team members will struggle to have their voice heard unless actively encouraged. This is because extroverted individuals will feel more comfortable talking, whilst introverted individuals are more comfortable observing.
To help build psychological safety, make use of routines to ensure everyone contributes, and ensure that everyone has spoken at least once before the end of a meeting.
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