High performing teams need a psychologically safe environment

Tal Ben-Shahar
By making yourself accessible, colleagues are more likely to raise questions and problems quickly (Source: Getty)

Have you ever been in a meeting with your superiors, disagreed with what is being said, but kept quiet for fear of being judged or, worse, dismissed? If you make a mistake at work, do you worry it may be held against you? Do you find that keeping your cards close to your chest is the best way to get ahead in your team?

If so, it’s likely that you are working in an environment which suffers from poor “psychological safety”.

What is it?

Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, who has conducted a lot of research into this area, describes it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

First mooted in the 60s, it can have a big impact on your bottom line. Google announced the end of a four year study into team performance earlier this year, revealing that psychological safety is the number one predictor of team success. The tech giant is now applying this learning to build teams of people that will work successfully together.

Our own research bears this out. After spending several years examining the most impactful leadership behaviours, we concluded that it was one of the five key attributes of great leadership.

So how psychologically safe is your organisation, and what can be done to make it more so?

Competitive advantage

Encouraging team members to take risks and raise questions, without fear of reprisal, is all about creating environments in which they feel accepted and respected.

That starts with the leadership. Team members are particularly aware of the behaviour of the leader. Their responses to events influence other members’ perceptions of appropriate and safe behaviour. And autocratic behaviour, inaccessibility, or a failure to acknowledge vulnerability can all contribute to a team’s reluctance to incur personal risk.

To foster psychological safety, leaders should demonstrate the following traits.

Be accessible

Leaders can encourage their teams to learn together by being accessible and personally involved.

A paper from 2000 looked at the routines of hospital operating room teams. One cardiac surgery team which promoted organisational learning described its surgeon as “very accessible. He’s in his office, always just two seconds away. He can always take five minutes to explain something, and he never makes you feel stupid.”

At the other end of the spectrum, a surgeon in a less successful team requested that team members go through his junior physicians.

Through their behaviours, these two surgeons conveyed very different messages to their teams. The first surgeon’s behaviour increased the likelihood that colleagues would come to him with questions or problems and, more importantly, raise queries quickly and openly in the operating room.

The other surgeon made this more difficult.

Acknowledge fallibility

To create a safe environment, leaders should demonstrate tolerance of failure by acknowledging their own fallibility. Self-disclosure is one way to do this. Leaders should repeatedly tell their team: “I need to hear from you because I’m likely to miss things” or perhaps casually discuss instances where they have themselves made mistakes.

Distinguish between psychological safety and accountability

But this does not mean there are no consequences for not hitting targets.

It is possible to reward excellence, sanction poor performance, and embrace inevitable imperfections and errors. However, no-one should be punished for occasional errors, or requests for help, in the service of reaching ambitious performance goals. And leaders must inspire team members to embrace errors and deal with failure in a productive manner.

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