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Psychological safety: 3 points for business leaders to think about

April 13, 2022

What does psychological safety mean to you? Another business fad, something you read about in HBR but haven’t had a chance to think about yet, and isn’t it just about people being nice to each other anyway?

While it might be true that psychological safety is hard to bring to life and needs ongoing attention to keep in place, it definitely isn’t a fad. And it is something you need to prioritise if you want your team to perform.  But let’s start with that myth about being nice.

1. What is (and isn’t) psychological safety?

Myth: psychological safety is about people being kind, and always agreeing with each other. Wrong. While kindness is never not a good thing, it isn’t psychological safety. Psychological safety is about creating an environment where people feel safe to speak up, challenge each other, share knowledge, take risks and make mistakes. Think of it this way, it’s about creating a safe space where you can feel uncomfortable and have difficult conversations.

The challenge is that these behaviours don’t come naturally to us. It can feel like we’re taking a huge risk when we admit to making a mistake or that a project has failed. Challenging someone and giving honest feedback can also feel uncomfortable. It goes against all our instincts because we’re opening ourselves up, making ourselves vulnerable and it’s why your role is so important. While everyone in the team has a part to play in creating a psychologically safe team environment, it starts with you, the leader.

Action: Is everyone in your team comfortable speaking up, contributing and giving feedback?

 

2. Psychological safety: it a new style of leadership

Building a team where it’s ok to have some straight-talking and healthy conflict calls for a different style of leadership. We’re talking about being curious, showing vulnerability, being ok with not having all the answers or being the expert. Understanding that failure is a part of the learning process. It’s challenging stuff.

We’re talking about leaders who are:

  • Curious, ask questions and listen to the answer
  • Show vulnerability
  • Ok to admit they don’t have all the answers

You’ll need to show your team the way. Time to walk the talk because your team will be waiting to see if your actions match your words.

Action: What leadership coaching and support do you need so that you have the knowledge and confidence to create a safe space for your team to have straight-talking conversations?

 

3. Is hybrid working affecting psychological safety?

We know that many are grappling with the switch from remote to hybrid working. The line between work and home has blurred in the past two years and many of us are taking this opportunity to create a way of working that’s as much about our personal circumstances as our work requirements.

It’s tough for leaders to manage though and it calls for high levels of psychological safety if you and your team are going to navigate your way through it successfully. But you need to be aware that it’s also a time when psychological safety can take a hit. That’s the conundrum with psychological safety. When you need it most, it’s at risk of disappearing.

We said at the top of the article that teams can lose psychological safety. It takes continued focus and effort to keep your team safe when things are running smoothly, let alone when the world is in a constant cycle of change – whether that’s for global, sector specific or personal reasons. But believe us, high levels of psychological safety will help you come through the other side.

There isn’t a one-size-fits all answer though. You’ll need to be open-minded, creative and think smart. You’ll need to work with your team to make sure your communication channels are fit for purpose and work for everyone, no matter where they are. You’ll need to keep reviewing how you do things as a team so that you keep on sharing ideas, feedback, challenges and opportunities.

 

What support do leaders need to build a psychologically safe team?

While your team might be looking for you to lead the way, psychological safety isn’t something you can or should do alone. Ask for the support you need to make it happen, whether that’s leadership coaching or practical support in putting in processes in place.

 

Reflection

  • Check what you and your team understand psychological safety is and isn’t?
  • Find out how safe team members feel at the moment and if that has changed in the past few months?
  • If it’s changed, what’s has happened in the team to prompt that shift, whether it’s up or down?
  • What support do you and your team need to increase levels of psychological safety in the team? It’s a new style of leadership, what coaching and leadership support you do need?
  • Psychological safety is even more important as you and your team navigates change, including new ways of working, like hybrid.

Contact us to talk about how we can help you to build psychological safety in your team.

 

Resources

LIW resources, blogs, research and white papers

Squadify We not Me Psychological Safety Podcast with Dr Jessica Tonissen

Amy Edmondson, Ted Talks

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