The importance of psychological safety at work

The importance of psychological safety at work

Psychological safety is a natural norm for high-performing teams. This blog explains what it is, why it matters, & how to instill it within your team.

Does psychological safety exist within your workplace culture?

Take note of who does most of the talking in your next team meeting:
  • Is it one or two of the usual suspects who own the floor for the duration of your session?
  • Or does everyone pipe up and share their ideas?
  • Do you feel confident speaking up and share your thoughts as you think of them?
  • Or do you tend to select and censor your thoughts?
  • Do you only share your ideas when you feel they are feasible or will be met with approval?

There's a lack of psychological safety in many companies. Employees believe that their credibility is measured by how ‘smart’ they appear to others. Team leaders may state that there’s “no such thing as a bad idea” but shoot down any suggestions that don’t match their own views.

Seniority can also be a factor, with more junior employees often remaining silent and letting their senior colleagues come up with the ideas and take credit for the plans.

So what?

This type of culture may seem harmless to most. Of course the more experienced team members should come up with the ideas – they know more, right? There’s no time to waste listening to ill-formed ideas and unfeasible suggestions. And if someone doesn’t speak up in a meeting, that’s their problem! There’s a job to be done and innovation doesn’t come from bad ideas.

Except that, actually, sometimes it does. Innovation is a funny thing. Sometimes the most incredible discoveries come from free thought, unburdened creativity and the uncensored sharing of ideas by colleagues who don’t fear judgement by their peers. The freedom to fail breeds a willingness to try. And happy employees are proven to produce better work. All of these traits are commonplace in organisations that imbue a culture of Psychological Safety.

Coincidence? We think not.

What is Psychological Safety at work?

Following a two year study, Google has revealed that:

“The highest-performing teams have one thing in common: Psychological Safety. The belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake.”

Let’s explore some common traits of Psychological Safety:

1. Interpersonal trust

At its core, interpersonal trust means that an individual can allow themselves to be vulnerable and take acceptable risks because they trust that others will not judge them.

When interpersonal trust is inherent within a team, Psychological Safety abounds. And creating a culture of interpersonal trust begins at the top. A recent survey revealed that only 43 percent of employees think their boss is open to unique ideas and opinions. Without a leadership team who actively encourages freedom of thought and new ways of working, innovation cannot thrive.

If you’re a team leader or senior business head, you need to ask yourself how much you actively encourage your team to come up with new ideas. Is yours a culture that accepts failure as an opportunity to learn? Do your employees feel safe to express their unique perspectives (and personalities) without fear of judgement? Are staff encouraged to work autonomously?

If not, it’s time to learn more about building interpersonal trust. This is the first step towards embedding Psychological Safety within your company.

2. Creativity

Many of us have worked in a company with a so-called ‘blame culture’. When something goes wrong, everyone is so concerned with the consequences that they create their own personal witch-hunt! If everybody is set on finding a scapegoat to protect themselves, trust becomes non-existent. And, without trust, creativity dies.

According to Dr. John Gottman, a world-renowned therapist, “Speaking our feelings and fears requires a willingness to be vulnerable. Often this vulnerability is mistaken as a sign of weakness, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Vulnerability is courageous. It’s a willingness to drop your shield and expose the unguarded underbelly of your fears, doubts, and insecurities.”

By creating a culture of Psychological Safety at work, we drop the blame and instead take on a shared responsibility. For failure, kindness and the safety of ourselves and others. Once the team can work without fear, they’ll become more comfortable with the vulnerability that’s required to share ideas, think creatively and take risks.

3. Mutual respect

This one may seem easy in theory. But, it requires ongoing effort to maintain a system of mutual respect within the team. Encouraging whistleblowing helps. Team members should be supported in calling out instances of disrespect between their colleagues. The process needs to be delicate and positive.

Equally, senior leaders need to exhibit consistent behaviours of mutual respect – and consistency is absolutely key here. It needs to happen at all levels, all the time, regardless of the situation. Not quite so simple after all – but achievable with the right attitude and a genuine willingness to make it work.

In a team where mutual respect is innate, colleagues feel safe to be themselves and express their ideas. Psychological Safety exists because employees feel secure and happy, part of a supportive community that respects their individuality. Most importantly, mutual trust breeds cooperation between team members. Cooperation leads to progress. And…well you know what progress means for your business.

4. Make mistakes and take risks

In Agile technology development, there exists a principle known as “Fail Fast”. Whilst it may sound like an ill-advised order to teams, it in fact refers to a culture of customer-facing testing.

When it comes to building software, historical development processes included a lengthy documentation stage, where any and every potential outcome of the software was hypothesised. The software was built using this very carefully thought out documentation, a process which often took years to complete. By the time the software was completed and presented to customers, it might not behave as they had expected. Sometimes, customers’ needs had changed in the time it had taken to build the product. And in some cases, the software simply didn’t work. By contrast, the concept of fail fast creates a sense of urgency for getting the simplest workable version of the software (known as the MVP) to customers.

The MVP (minimum viable product) refers to the simplest workable version of software that can be used by customers. The MVP is a blueprint from which better versions are borne. It allows the customer to feedback on the solution, rather than the software – i.e. if this initial version was finessed to a more polished product, would they use it? What would need to be improved, removed or added?

Once feedback has been collected, development can continue and a far superior product will be created. Customer testing will be incorporated at every stage of development in this way, leading to better customer satisfaction and higher profits.

However, if the feedback to the MVP is overwhelmingly negative and it’s clear that the product is never going to succeed, work stops. The project may be cancelled or re-imagined. But either way, this apparent ‘failure’ is seen as a learning opportunity, feedback is shared and incorporated into any future projects. The company avoids spending any more money on a project that would ultimately fail. And nobody is blamed.

5. Culture

A fail fast culture doesn’t happen by chance. Senior leaders should be the first to make it absolutely clear that it’s ok to fail. And this requires a level of personal awareness that many business chiefs don’t possess. So they need to learn it.

Training courses, personal development sessions and even personal coaching can help. If a CEO equates their personal worth with the success of company projects, they won’t favour failure.

Emotionally intelligent leaders understand that failure is healthy for growth, both personally and professionally. And they’ll exhibit behaviours that encourage others to feel the same way. Once more people realise that it’s ok to fail, they’ll begin to trust their intuition and share their ideas. And the seeds of Psychological Safety will be sown.

Final thoughts…

Google’s research of its own workforce revealed that psychological safety was the most important team norm for high-performing innovative workplaces – those norms are: psychological safety; dependability; structure and clarity; meaning and purpose; and impact.

There’s a good reason why some of the leading companies in the world (like Google) have a culture that prioritises Psychological Safety. Progress and success are the products of happy, motivated individuals working together without fear. Failure, risk taking and vulnerability should be rewarded as strengths, not weaknesses. And innovation should be seen as a by-product of a positive working environment, rather than a single-minded goal.

At Just3Things, we believe that innovation happens when talented individuals work together freely and with respect, to create products that customers need. Our software platform empowers businesses to align and focus their efforts, act quickly to change priorities and bring the right talent together to deliver results.

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