Psychological Safety: the Key to an Effective Team

What makes a team effective? Back in 2015, Google published the results of an extensive two-year research project aiming to answer this very question. The results were surprising to say the least.

Rather than focussing on talented individuals or a broad range of skills, the research found that the single most important factor for an effective team is psychological safety.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety refers to the feeling that you can speak your mind or take risks without fear of negative consequences. In the workplace, this means being part of a team that is open to new ideas, and respectful of different personalities and opinions. This way, it is closely related to inclusion, belonging and diversity.

Why is it so important?

If you have ever suppressed an idea for fear of being judged negatively, or perhaps thought twice about speaking your mind in case you said the ‘wrong’ thing, you’ll know what it’s like to work in a psychologically unsafe environment or team. And if you’ve felt this way, chances are other people have too. Imagine how many great ideas have been lost due to this culture of fear.

This is the case in many organisations, and within many teams. People simply don’t feel comfortable sticking their necks out. Speaking up and offering a different viewpoint can seem too risky; sometimes it’s easier to just say nothing.

But organisations need people to take risks and think outside the box. Risk taking and original thinking are the seed of progress, creativity and innovation; without them, nothing ever changes. You can have the most talented people in the world, thinking the most ground-breaking ideas, but unless they feel comfortable sharing them, those ideas will forever remain dormant.

So how do you go about creating a psychologically safe environment? Here are a few ideas.

Start at a cultural level

Psychological safety isn’t something that you can turn on at the flick of a switch. It relies heavily on shared values, such as trust, respect, openness, acceptance and inclusion. To create a psychologically safe environment, you need to build these values into your organisation at a cultural level, and then ask employees to exhibit them through their work and actions.

The importance of these values should be highlighted at all stages of the employee journey, from recruitment through to onboarding and training.

Value different ideas and opinions

In many workplaces, employees feel so disenfranchised that speaking their mind doesn’t even seem an option – even when they can see clear problems with the current way of working. Likewise, the decision makers higher up the corporate ladder never think to ask them. Ultimately, this leads to employees feeling disconnected from their work.

In a psychologically safe team, however, new ideas are actively welcomed, and different viewpoints are valued. As a result, nothing is ever set in stone, and teams are always looking for new and better ways to approach their work. This doesn’t mean that every new idea must be accepted and implemented, but that it is at least heard and considered. This process of inquiry is key to a dynamic and creative team, and gives individuals a say in the direction of their work.

Replace ‘yes’ with ‘why?’

Many workplaces have a ‘yes’ culture, where employees feel compelled to agree with the status quo. This is particularly true in a hierarchical workplace, where those lower down the pyramid are expected to do as they are told.

Anything that deviates from the well-trodden path is seen as controversial, or simply ‘wrong’, and there is a sense of danger attached to criticising long-held beliefs around how things should be done. In such organisations, ideas are suppressed, and creativity and progress are stifled.

Instead of expecting employees to blindly say ‘yes,’ try to promote a culture of ‘why?’ Encourage your employees to question the direction of work and the processes involved. We all do this intuitively anyway, both in the workplace and as consumers. But all too often, we keep questions such as ‘why are we doing it this way?’ or ‘what’s the point in that?’ to ourselves. Creating a psychologically safe work environment encourages people to be curious and inquisitive, and emboldens them to speak up when they see a problem.

Give and receive feedback

Feedback can sometimes be uncomfortable. We take pride in our work, and any comment with even a hint of criticism – however constructive – can feel like a personal attack. But the process of giving and receiving feedback is essential to progress. It allows us to fine-tune the way we work, and in some cases provides us with totally new insights and ideas.

For this to work, trust is essential. The team needs to be pulling in the same direction, with everyone looking out for everyone else. This way, instead of seeing the feedback process as something potentially confrontational or destructive, we can approach it with an open mind and a willingness to learn.

Avoid the blame game

If your workplace has a culture of blame or punishment, chances are your people will avoid taking risks in their work for fear of failure. Instead, they will choose to play it safe, which means they’ll never realise their true potential. In a psychologically unsafe environment, simply speaking up can be a risk. By pointing out a problem or offering a different opinion to the majority, you risk being ignored, ridiculed, laughed at, or even punished. This is a risk many would rather avoid.

But risk taking is an essential part of the search for progress. In order to take risks, team members need to feel that it is safe to make mistakes and to fail. After all, failure represents a great opportunity to learn from our mistakes, to improve, and to find new and better ways of approaching our work.


Nick Edwards - http://www.praguecopywriter.com

Nicholas Edwards is a freelance writer and editor based in Prague, the Czech Republic. When he's not helping local businesses master the English language, he loves writing about the future of work for People First. 

Linkedin Logo