How to create psychological safety on your teams

I was on a project team to create the best leadership program the world had ever seen. Our company CEO said that we were going to win in the market because of our great leaders, so Larry and team had to train them up good!

We had the best and the brightest in the room. People with years’ of experience and expertise in leadership development. We were going to do it right this time, take our time, challenge each other, say the unsayables because it was that important. The survival of our company was at stake! I think I just went too far, sorry. Our boss left it up to us to change the world (again too far)….and….the boss also wanted to see progress.

SO here is what would happen on a regular basis. We are in a room around a table hashing out the program. It became a regular occasion for the door to open, boss walks in and walks around the table, and says, “Still dipping your toes in? At some point you need to jump in the water!” Then he’d walk out.

What impact do you think that had on the team? Did it motivate us to be creative and innovative? Did it help us to get in the flow and immerse ourselves in the task? Or did it influence us to make it yet another check the box activity?

Well I know you are dying to find out that we DID create a great program which we delivered for years with positive results, in spite of the fact that at times, we didn’t have psychological safety as a team. For all fairness, I loved this leader and still consider them a friend.

So what is psychological safety? Why is it so important? And how can you influence it? According to research from Google, not my research on the Google, but Google the company… they identified that psychological safety was the most important differentiator of effective teams. When teams have psychological safety they are less likely to leave and more likely to innovate, be inclusive, and generate revenue. Sign me up for that!

Amy Edmondson of Harvard defines psychological safety as, “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

Have you ever not asked a question because you thought it might make you look bad or out of the loop? Have you ever not made a suggestion because you were afraid a mistake might be held against you? Did you ever not take a risk because the political implications were too steep? Did you ever not ask for help or clarification because you might look weak? Have you ever felt that your unique points of view were not appreciated? I know I have. If you answered yes, those are signs that you lacked psychological safety on your team.

So how do you create psychological safety on your teams?
First of all, you can frame the work as a learning problem and not an execution problem. When we change the mindset that we are here to learn, then people are more open. Make it clear that we need everyone’s input, that things may be uncertain, and we need to learn as a group together. That also involves avoiding blamestorming, not brainstorming, but blamestorming.

Instead of, “Why did you do this?” focus on solutions. Ask, “How can we work toward making sure this goes more smoothly next time?”, “What can we do together to make a game plan for next time?”

Next is to acknowledge your own fallibility. Showing vulnerability as the leader makes a huge impact on safety. You can say something like, “I may be missing something here. Or I missed something here.” When you go first and share your vulnerability, the team will follow.

Third, model curiosity, ask a lot of questions. Solicit input, opinions, and feedback from your teammates. And when you do, don’t interrupt or allow interruptions

I have an excellent tool that Google uses called How to foster Psychological Safety on your teams. It has more tips than the ones I shared here. Reach out to me and I will send it to you.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this, I was listening to a very senior leader talk to a group of high potentials, and he said, “You’ve heard people say, don’t bring me a problem without a solution. That sounds like good advice right?” He saw it differently. He said, “I know that some problems are very complex, what I don’t want you to do is not to come to me with problems because you can’t solve it for yourself. Come to me with problems so that we can work it out together.” Wow! Talk about psychological safety. Remember it is the little things that we do every day that helps build psychological safety, and this is a great example of how to build it.

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