Are You Creating Psychological Safety for Your Team?
Are You Creating Psychological Safety for Your Team?
17 Aug. 2018

During a weekly team meeting at Company Zed, LaTonya, an employee who has worked for the company for nine months, questioned one of the company’s normal operating processes.  She offered an idea that she believed would meet the same goal while saving the company time and money.  After discussing and researching the idea, Company Zed was able to implement the new process, which resulted in a savings of both time and money.  Meanwhile, at Company Alpha’s team meeting, a long-term employee had a similar time-and-money-saving idea but refrained from bringing her idea up for discussion. As a result, Alpha continued to engage in their normal process.

What differentiates these companies and results in Zed’s high level of teamwork and ability to solve complex problems? The employee at Company Alpha appears concerned with impression management.  It is likely that her past experiences or the company’s culture has taught this employee that she is safer to withhold her thoughts, questions, or concerns.  In doing so, Alpha does not learn as a team, improve the organization, or engage in innovation.

The employee at Zed appears to feel safe voicing her idea, even though it calls for the company to make a change to operations.  Given the employee’s willingness to voice her opinion, Company Zed appears to have a higher level of psychological safety than Alpha.  Psychological safety is the belief that an individual will not be humiliated or punished for being curious, offering an idea, questioning the status quo, or admitting to a mistake.

To be competitive and successful in business today, teams must be able to develop cooperative relationships and solve complex problems. Research indicates that teams with high levels of psychological safety are more likely to be open-minded, creative, curious, confident, social, humorous, persistent, and to feel more comfortable speaking frankly about ideas, concerns, questions, and mistakes.  Teams high in psychological safety report that their work environment feels challenging but not threatening, which allows members to feel comfortable expressing vulnerability in front of a group of peers.  The ability to engage in vulnerability-inducing behaviour encourages moderate levels of risk-taking and strategic development of solutions to complex problems.

Teams high on psychological safety also exhibit differences in their brain chemistry.  Specifically, teams with high levels of psychological safety have increased levels of Oxytocin, which has been called the “love hormone.”  Oxytocin levels affect how we bond with and trust others.  In team environments, increased levels of Oxytocin lead to more trust, openness, and the ability to manage conflict, which results in improved team performance.

Creating a Safe Culture

  1. How do we create or increase psychological safety on our teams?  According to research, we can engage in the following behaviours:
    Provide your team with a rationale for engaging in risk-taking and vulnerability-inducing behaviour.  One of the surest means to provide this rationale is to acknowledge that everyone’s ideas and instincts will be needed to solve a complex problem.
  2. Model a culture where it is acceptable to make mistakes or be wrong. A leader can accomplish this by admitting to his or her own mistakes, asking team members to catch the leader’s mistakes, and modelling the importance of continued learning in order to improve his or her own skills.
  3. Encourage collaboration, not competition. This can be done by asking team members to solve conflicts in a mutually agreeable manner, rather than by engaging in competition, criticism, or other behaviours that may trigger a fight-or-flight reaction. Collaboration works best if team members:
  4. Treat one another as equal in competence, social status, and autonomy.  Team equalization changes the way teams engage in confrontation and elicits trust and other positive behaviours.
  5. Decrease defensiveness and increase curiosity.  Engaging in the “blame game” tends to increase conflict, defensiveness, and disengagement.  Leaders can increase curiosity by modelling the appropriateness of asking questions and engaging in conversations in an attempt to understand another’s point of view.

Increasing your company’s level of psychological safety may provide the competitive advantage that will continue to differentiate your company from your competitors.  Please let us know if you need assistance with implementing strategies to increase psychological safety.

Discuss how to move your team to a psychologically safe culture by contacting a PeopleScape Consultant today – Contact Us

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