Psychological safety in the workplace

Photo by Matt Ridley on Unsplash

What is it

Psychological safety is a term which is used to denote the ability of a team member to take risks within the team while being vulnerable in front of his team members. Google culminated a two year study on what makes a team more effective by naming ‘Psychological Safety’ as the trait on top of the list.

Why is it important

The possibility of business success today largely lies in its ability to innovate. As we are met with an ever-increasing set of complex challenges, we are moving further and further away from the classic management paradigm of traditional solution-based thinking and moving to rapid experimentation and prototyping way of thinking.

This also means that the faster an organization can give its people the autonomy to innovate fast and furious, the bigger the chances that they will hit the jackpot.

Psychological safety then becomes no longer a fuzzy, feel-good term thrown by HR but the very factor that could determine if an organization out-innovates its competition.

How can you foster a culture of Psychological safety

Present problems for teams to solve

Instead of handing down an edict that a particular business problem has to be solved in a particular way, foster collective problem solving by involving the whole team in the process. Allow people to question decisions and processes and be transparent about your decision making process.

Encourage a strong feedback culture

A strong feedback culture complements psychological safety. Team members must be encouraged to give honest, actionable feedback without fear of repercussions. Remember, feedback is a signal that someone cares and is engaged enough to think about how things can be improved.

Own and celebrate failures

If an experiment fails, ensure that the message is not one of gloom and doom but that the team takes time to learn from it. As long as they have learnt something from it, even one thing, it is an occasion for celebration. Far too often, failures are swept under the carpets or are dealt with like the Spanish inquistion. Neither approach will encourage people to come forward with the next big idea that may fail, but may also soar beyond imagination.

Admit you do not know

One of my biggest lightbulb moments as I transitioned into my role as Head of Engineering is that I had no more answers than anyone else in the department about many of the issues that faced us. It was a moment of great humility but also great clarity. Faced with this new insight, I could only do two things -

  1. Clearly communicate the problem facing us
  2. Admit I do not have all the answers(maybe some dumb suggestions)

This not only encourages team members to think about possible suggestions, but also helps them feel comfortable enough to say ‘I don’t know’.

Trust in People

When my daughter started biking to school, I was terrified. What if she gets a flat tyre? What if she gets lost? What if? What if? Most organizations are terrified to let their employees make mistakes and fail. What they dont realize ís that failure accelerates learning much more than success ever does.



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