Building a psychologically safe workplace

A nurse, on a busy night shift hospital schedule, notices that a certain medical dosage for a particular patient is higher than normal. Immediately, she considers calling the doctor’s home to confirm. Just as fleetingly, she also recalls the doctor’s disparaging comments about her abilities the last time she had disturbed him. Unable to make a decision, she finally decides to let the patient remain on the same dosage under the assumption that he was on an experimental treatment protocol.

A young pilot on a military training flight noticed that his senior officer might have made a crucial misjudgment. He lets it go without making a call.

A senior executive had been recently hired by a very successful consumer products company to join the top management team. However, he had grave reservations about a plan to take over a competitor. New to the team, he chose not to say anything when everyone else was so enthusiastic about the plan.

These three different episodes have one thing in common – when speaking out was necessary and would have been helpful, it was held back and not expressed. Why did this happen? What was the missing thread that could have enabled these people to give vent their opinions?

All these three workplaces did not encourage a psychologically safe work environment, an environment where the employee feels comfortable, accepted, and respected enough to actively express their thoughts, regardless of their position.

What is psychological safety and why does it matter?

Psychological safety is defined as, “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career”. In other words, psychological safety means team members feel accepted and respected within their current roles.
The notion of psychological safety was first introduced by organizational behavioral scientist, Amy Edmondson, who coined the phrase and defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

“It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves,” states Edmondson.
It wasn’t until Google realized how important psychological safety is that most people began to take it seriously. Google wanted to find out what it takes to build the most effective team possible, so they launched Project Aristotle.
It was a mammoth task, consisting of hundreds of interviews and the analysis of data taken from over 100 active teams at Google. Interestingly, the key finding was that above all else, psychological safety was crucial to ensuring that a team works well together.

How to create an environment of psychological safety?

During her TEDx Talk on “Building a psychologically safe workplace”, Amy Edmondson pointed out that there are three main things to consider when trying to create psychological safety in teams:

        •       Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem

        •       Acknowledge your own fallibility

        •       Model curiosity and ask lots of questions

With Edmondson’s factors taken into consideration, here are some ways you can encourage and cultivate an environment of psychological safety:

1.     Gather people’s opinions on important decisions in writing before you meet to discuss them.

        2.     Ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to put forward their ideas before you announce which ideas you support

        3.     Always try and experiment using multiple plausible arguments/ideas, rather than settling for one option

        4.     Hold group discussions in meetings if there are disagreements rather than keeping things between two or three people

        5.     Appreciate when team members take the time and effort to challenge your views

        6.     Make a point of ensuring that other team members who have less authority on paper have their voice heard – adding a “no interruption” rule can help quieter team members have their say as well.

How to measure?
In an attempt to make your team more successful, you first need to establish a baseline and measure improvements over time. You might think you have a good feel for your team, but it’s surprising what you’ll learn when you actually measure for psychological safety.
In order to measure this, Edmondson asked team members how strongly they agreed or disagreed with these questions:

1.     If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you?

        2.     Are members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues?

        3.     Have people on this team sometimes reject others for being different?

        4.     Is it safe to take a risk on this team?

        5.     Is it difficult to ask other members of this team for help?

        6.     Would no one on this team deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts?

        7.     When working with members of this team, are my unique skills and talents valued and utilized?

In a world of high uncertainty and interdependence, psychological safety is essential to create an environment that is conducive to the wellness of the employee. This will lead to effective employees who work towards the efficiency of the business as a whole.

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