How to cultivate psychological safety

How do you build & cultivate psychological safety in a team? 

This is not an easy task and it will not be done overnight.
However, there are many things we can do to cultivate & build psychological safety.

In this post we’ll address the 4 top things you can do today!  

  1. As leaders, we need to be forthcoming about the challenges we face and be able to address them with employees openly.

    This allows us to be able to explain the challenges and encourage our employees to keep up the good work and push through it. A common understanding of the challenges we face will also open up for other great ideas. Remember, there is a reason you have the people you have in your organization. They are intelligent and full of great ideas!

  2. Active listening:
    Listening with intent and presence is important for leaders and team members alike.

    Listening with intent means that you focus on the person who is conveying the message, not on your response or reaction. You are curious and genuine in your approach. This is return will create and cultivate trust and psychological safety.

    Working on practicing active listening and continuously work on these skills is not a one-time thing, rather in it continuous and has to be practiced frequently.

    If you want to learn more about the art of active listening join our masterclass on enterprise agility.
  3. Next, we must acknowledge and talk about mistakes:
    If a mistake is made, acknowledge it, and talk about it openly, but remember to do so without focusing on the person who made the error or blaming them. When we experience failure we need to focus on the problem and process, and what went wrong. Rather than blaming people. Blaming people will not lead to anything good, instead, it will lead to an unsafe environment and employees.

    If you as a leader make a mistake, talk about it, make it human. By leading by example you will establish that same practice among your team.

    Instead of considering mistakes as something negative, work on turning this into a learning opportunity & experience. Without the mistake, you, your teams, and organization would never have had that exact opportunity to learn!
    Recognize their value as opportunities to learn and build upon.

  4. Lastly, encourage curiosity, encourage curiosity in the organization at all levels.

    Be genuinely curious about your people, who are they, what are their passions and interests?
    Creating a culture of curiosity will also in return not only spark a culture where coming up with new ideas are safe but also expected. It will spark innovation among your organization and excitement among your customers.

Want to learn more about enterprise agility?
Check out our course to learn more?

Psychological Safety

Do you wonder what makes the ideal high performing team? 

To many people’s surprise, what we’ve come to learn is that it that a teams collective intelligence is not correlated with the sum of its member’s individual intelligence. 

Collective intelligence is made up of three different elements: 

  • The first of these elements is social perceptiveness or social awareness:
    This is how perceptive or aware we are about other people and understanding why they behave and react the way they do. 
  • The second element is equality in conversational turn-taking:
    This is what we know as psychological safety. Equality in conversational turn-taking is ensuring that everyone is heard and has time to speak and that this time is shared equally. Also, it is essential that all members of the team feel like and experience they can voice their opinion and communicate their ideas without fear of judgment. 
  • The final element is gender diversity: 
    This is having equality in the ratio between genders. 

We also know psychological safety is important for team performance based on Google’s research study “Project Aristotle”. Google conducted this study to determine what makes up an effective team at Google. 

They spent 2 years observing 180 teams of 37.000 employees. What they learned from their study was that psychological safety was the most important thing needed to create high performing teams. 

Want to learn more about enterprise agility?
Check out our course to learn more?

But what is psychological safety exactly? 

Psychological safety allows teams to learn, grow, and perform, which is why it is critical for us to understand.

There is a great misconception that psychological safety is simply about being in your comfort zone, but it has nothing to do with being at home in your favorite spot on the couch with your favorite snack while talking to colleagues.

Instead, it’s a place where you have a strong sense of safety but also high-performance standards.

If you have low psychological safety and low-performance standards you end up with people who are mostly apathetic to their work. They end up in the apathy zone. If performance standards are increased many then think that people will be motivated to work harder. However, if you have low psychological safety coupled with high-performance standards this leads to anxiety. This is where people experience high amounts of stress.

However, if you have high psychological safety but low-performance standards the result will be that people enter into a comfort zone where the employee is comfortable but has low productivity because little is expected of them. Neither this is a place where people tend to be happy.

What you do want for your employees is for them to be in their learning zone; this is where employees experience high psychological comfort and high-performance standards. People tend to do better and be more productive when more is expected of them and they thrive in this learning zone.

So what we know about psychological safety is that it’s not about being comfortable, it’s about creating space for the behaviors that are necessary for complex, uncertain, and interdependent work, which is most modern work environments. 

We also know psychological safety exists at group level, which means it can be different from one team to another, even within the same organization.

This level of variation is why it is important to stay focused on cultivating psychological safety within each team. 

Lastly, we know that high psychological safety creates an environment that encourages learning behavior, and allows for people to be more creative in their work. People also have a higher tendency to report errors because they have less fear of reporting. And, of course, with more error reporting comes more opportunity for growth, learning, and quality improvements in implementation.

But how do we build this safe space for our employees? If you want to learn more about this check out our course.

Check out our course on enterprise agility to learn more?

Trust and transparency – Trust as a competitive advantage

Trust and transparency are talked about a lot. Bård Kuvaas, a professor in Organizational Psychology at BI Business School in Oslo, Norway, argue that “trust is more than intensive management and control, leaders who give more trust get more motivated employees in return. “

Employees whom experience trust are often:

  • Less stressed
  • More productive
  • Have less sick absences

“TRUST is more than intensive management and control. Leaders who give trust get more motivated employees. They become less stressed, more productive, and have less sickness absence than others. A lot is about being involved in tasks and challenges at work. When we seize this chance, because it’s obvious there’s uncertainty in the picture, the people we show trust experience JOB AUTONOMY. TRUST is a competitive advantage!

Bård Kuvaas

For this reason, Kuvaas argue that trust can be a competitive advantage. We argue that transparency is part of trust. Trust can be gained through transparency and transparency can be attained or achived due of trust.

All employees are involved in challenges at work, having transparency can allow them to understand the challenges better, hence make better decisions. With the right information, which has been given due to trust and transparency, employees can be entrusted with more autonomy to make even more decisions and face challenges.

This, of course, does come with some risk because it requires that you begin to trust your employees more which comes with uncertainty.

With that in mind, Stephen Covey and Greg Link write in their book Smart Trust that what is required is the type of trust they call Smart Trust.

Smart trust is when one has a willingness to trust but exercises analysis. This means that rather than trusting blindly one must be conscientious in who they give their trust to.

Covey and Link argue there are five steps that must be taken to employ this strategy:

  • First, you have to believe in the strategy of giving trust, you have to believe that it is the correct action for it to be effective.
  • Secondly, you must have trust for others within yourself.
  • The third step is that you state your purpose and be transparent about your reasons for doing the things that you’re doing and maintain a positive and optimistic outlook that you will get the same in return from your employees.
  • The fourth step is that you be sure to stand by your word and have strong integrity so that you give your employees reason to trust you in return.
  • Finally, the fifth step is that it is your responsibility in leadership to initiate the spread of trust.

Another aspect of trust that is discussed in Smart Trust is called the Speed of Trust.

Check out our Master class on Udemy! Now only $9.99 instead of $199.99!

Speed of Trust

Speed of trust is the idea that having a culture of trust within an organization allows it to run faster and more smoothly. In many organizations employees’ work must be checked or have their decisions verified, these are referred to as checkpoints within the organization.

More employees and less trust mean more checkpoints are required to confirm that the needed work is being done correctly. More checkpoints means slower function or operation within the organization. In addition to slower operation, more checkpoints mean higher operating costs as well.

More trust, however, means eliminating checkpoints because you give your employees enough autonomy to do their job and have faith that they will do it, and those that would be checking have more time to perform the necessary functions of their jobs.

Fewer checkpoints, in turn, means higher operational speed, which can translate into bringing products to market faster. In addition to the increase of workflow in the organization, more trust then also means lower cost, since in removing checkpoints you have also relieved some of the burdens of work off of your employees, and is able to move faster.

Trust also has the ability to increase transparency, increasing trust will also allow for an increase in transparency. Trust and transparency have a strong and direct relationship in that more trust allow for more transparency, but then more transparency can also create more trust and each one can feed and promote the other.

As we stated before there is an amount of risk involved in this approach and it’s because of this risk that it is the responsibility of you, the leadership to start the movement towards more trust in the organization so that your employees will follow your lead.

The best way to get this cultural shift started is through transparency and initiating trust.

An unexpected story about trust

General Stanley McChrystal was in charge of the US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. In the fight against Al-Qaida and the extremists. General McChrystal used trust and transparency in the US Army to a tremendous extent, he saw great success with it, and completely changed the way they operate.

General McChrystal applied trust strategies through many means but largely through the use of extreme transparency and a very high degree of information sharing.

…sharing information would help build relationships and the two together would kindle a new, coherent, adaptive entity that could win the fight.”

U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal

The military is an organization that is not well known for it’s transparency, in fact it’s quite the opposite, they have probably the greatest reputation for secrecy rather than open information sharing.

As leaders of an organization it’s worth considering that if the US military can implement this kind of transparency and trust culture, it’s worth considering for use in your own company.

It is worth considering being more open with colleagues about what projects we have, what tasks, decisions, challenges etc. Simply being more open with coworkers will in addition to creating more trust and operational speed also help you if you are stuck on some aspect of your problem. Sharing it with a colleague and discussing that hurdle may lead you to discover that your colleague can actually help you with your problem, look at it from another angle, or know about a workaround.

I’d like to wrap this up with a quote and reference to Gandhi himslef

“Be the change you want to see in the world”

Mahatma Gandhi

It is mine and yours responsibility to initiate this change; we must be the change we wish to see, including within our organizations.

If you want to see a work environment and culture that is based on trust and transparency, the change must begin with you.

Take a minute and think about how you could be more trusting and transparent in your daily work?