April 26, 2024

Creating Psychological Safety at Work

Pyschological safety is very much on the minds of human resources and learning and development professionals as a key driver for retention, innovation and a healthy culture. For years we have been working with our clients and partners, helping them to create the conditions for success in their business. Now more than ever, this feels like our life’s calling as we work to help improve lives, by transforming the experience of work – Through Leadership. The conditions for success, whilst unique to each and every business and team, do, however, have some things in common. Not least an environment where everyone feels safe, included and motivated to be at their best.  Read on to explore the concept of psychological safety at work.

The foundations of psychological safety in a work context

Our understanding of psychological safety at work has been shaped by the theories if three major theories & studies:

  • Amy Edmondson
  • Google’s Project Aristotle
  • Timothy Clarke

1. Amy Edmondson’s view of psychological safety

The term Psychological Safety was first coined by Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson in 1999. She described it as

“The belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking” 

She went on to explain that Psychological Safety is not about being nice or avoiding conflict, but about creating a culture in which everyone feels comfortable to speak up, to ask questions, to admit mistakes, and to challenge others, including those more senior than them.

She also clarified that it is critical for performance – only in a psychologically safe environment can we expect to achieve the highest levels of innovation, creativity and collaboration.

2. Psychological Safety at Work and Team Success: Google’s Project Aristotle

More than a decade later Google carried out one of the largest ever studies of teamwork to answer the question What makes teams successful?

The Google research identified 5 factors that were critical to high performing teams and the most important of all was Psychological Safety.

They concluded that teams that felt safe to take risks and be vulnerable with each other were the most successful, and so organisations which created a climate of psychological safety would be the highest performing.

3. The stages of psychological safety by Timothy Clark

In 2020 Timothy Clark elaborated on the idea of psychological safety and produced his model of the Four Stages of Psychological Safety. He proposed that people have an in-built need to do four things when they interact with others:

  1. to feel included – to be accepted and heard
  2. to feel safe to learn and grow – to ask questions, give and receive feedback, and experiment
  3. to feel safe to contribute – to participate in the team using their talents
  4. to be able to challenge the way things are done – to share ideas for change

Without these conditions team members will hold back their contribution and manage their individual risk. But, when these elements are in place and the environment nurtures Psychological Safety then individuals become more confident, engaged, and performance rises.

Watch Timothy Clark explain it himself in this short video: What is Psychological Safety | Intro to The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety – YouTube

Why does Psychological Safety at work matter?

In a world of rapid and constant change, organisations are under pressure to achieve more with less. This means making sure that their teams are working on the most important opportunities to move the business forward, and that they are working in the most effective way. 

 Research from McKinsey suggests that organisations that are more inclusive and have greater Psychological Safety are able to ‘innovate more rapidly, unlock the benefits of diversity and adapt well to change’.  

 Unfortunately, their research also found that very few leaders demonstrate the behaviours required to create a psychologically safe workplace.  

 Timothy Clark identified that Psychological Safety leads to:  

  • higher engagement
  • increased creativity
  • better decision making
  • continuous learning
  • increased performance

It makes sense – our brains constantly scan for threat and reward and are far more tuned to detect threat. In this threat state we are more risk averse, problem focused, distracted and anxious; not a great recipe for performance. 

Listen to Amy Edmondson reflecting on the importance of Psychological Safety in the workplace:  Creating Psychological Safety at Work in a Knowledge Economy | Amy Edmondson, Harvard – YouTube

Understanding Pyschological Safety at work

What are workplace psychosocial hazards and how are they different from psychological safety?

Psychosocial hazards are potential threats to employee wellbeing, while Psychological Safety defines a work culture employees experience when they feel safe to learn, challenge and take risks without fear of retribution. Psychosocial hazards therefore define conditions within a workplace that can reduce or eliminate Psychological Safety for employees. 

The effective management and or removal of psychosocial hazards is quite rightly a strong focus in the modern workplace and will only increase. In fact, in Australia the laws on workplace health and safety have been extended to include psychosocial hazards and we can expect other countries to follow this lead. These hazards are defined as anything that could cause psychological harm (e.g. harm someone’s mental health and wellbeing) and include lack of role clarity, remote or isolated work, poor support, bullying and conflict.  

Worksafe Australia has defined a hierarchy of controls to manage workplace risks:

  1. Eliminate the hazard – this may be difficult to totally eliminate behaviours
  2. Reduce the risk through substitution, isolation and engineering controls – implementing restrictions on team contact to avoid the risks
  3. Reduce the risk through administrative controls – imposing rules through HR practices

This hierarchy of controls is a step towards improving people’s work lives and driving positive behaviour and performance. However, a framework and a set of directives whilst raising the importance and expectation for increased Psychological Safety, does not, in itself, create the ideal environment. In practice, these hazards can be minimized more constructively through effective leadership and a simple, clear model for leadership action to create the ideal conditions. This positive approach to addressing psychosocial hazards will deliver significant benefits in terms of team member engagement, productivity and happiness at work – leading to improved retention and performance. 

How can I create and maintain Psychological Safety at work?

Psychological Safety is created and sustained when behaviours demonstrating inclusion, support, learning, contribution and challenge are present, in team members and leaders alike. Psychological Safety is not a ‘set-and-forget’ activity, it needs constant attention to maintain this essential aspect of culture. 

For most employees their experience of work is hugely impacted by the team leader and their style of leadership. Leadership is the key to Psychological Safety and leadership development is the most powerful tool in the HR Leader’s toolkit to achieve it.

McKinsey research Psychological Safety and the critical role of leadership development (mckinsey.com) identified a leadership style that combined challenge and support/consultation was the most effective style to foster a positive team climate. Their research found that only 26% of leaders demonstrate this model of leadership – but they have the highest level of reported positive team climate (72%)

Whilst it may seem difficult to ‘teach’ a leader to create a psychologically safe work environment, we will demonstrate how Psychological Safety is most keenly experienced as the outcome of a set of conditions that the leader creates, that encourages everyone to work together in ways that promote feelings of safety and wellbeing. After all Behaviour is largely an outcome of the environment we experience. 

A simple framework to support Psychological Safety at work.

Over 25 years ago we developed the 3Cs model for leadership – defining the conditions that leaders should create for their people to succeed, and whilst the definition of ‘leader’ has shifted over this time, our mantra of ‘Leadership, not just Leaders’ is more relevant today than it’s ever been. As the world continues to move into self-forming and self-managed teams and for more fluid organisational structures, the act of leadership is crucial and needs to be demonstrated at all levels by leaders and team members alike. The 3Cs model has been effective in creating the conditions for high performance for teams and organisations from the Fortune 100 to start-ups, from Healthcare to Technology and from USA to Africa and all points inbetween. 

The 3Cs, the Conditions for SuccessTM are:

  1. Claritywhat do we want to achieve and why? What do others need to understand in order to be able to contribute effectively to the outcomes we have agreed? 
  2. Climatewhat culture do we need to achieve our goals? What systems and processes will support us and how do we need to work together? 
  3. Competencewhat skills and knowledge do we each need, and what behaviours will best support our team’s performance?

This simple model helps to shine a light on the critical elements of the environment that, when present will enable everyone to thrive, creating enjoyment, motivation and healthy, sustainable performance. Rather than focusing on ways to reduce psychosocial hazards in the work environment, let’s look at how we can use the 3Cs as a blueprint for proactively creating the conditions for high levels of Psychological Safety: 

Clarity Developing shared understanding and common purpose and goals builds confidence and certainty.

  • Working together to develop a shared purpose and vision which unites everyone towards a common goal. This, together with a clear vision and shared measures of success fosters a sense of belonging and provides individuals with certainty around the expectations and deliverables. 
  • Creating clarity of roles further enables team members to understand the part they play in the team and dependencies with other team members, enabling them to give and receive support to move towards desired outcomes together. Further, if each team member has a defined role that plays to their strengths, they are likely to have more confidence to speak up when they know that they are the valued members of the team. 
  • Ensuring regular transparent, authentic, reciprocal communication, not just information sharing but true understanding within the team, removes doubt and potential threat from the unknown. This can increase confidence and ownership, building satisfaction and self-worth from the knowledge, effectively contributing to shared outcomes. 

Climate – cocreating a supportive culture encourages contribution, learning and a sense of belonging 

  • Creating space and time for all team members to speak and be listened to, welcoming healthy challenge and questions, so that the benefits of diversity can flow into team discussions and better decision-making and outcomes. Establishing an inclusive culture that everyone has contributed to and is therefore more motivated to develop and maintain.
  • Proactively building relationships based on an agreed ideal drives positive behaviour and increases enjoyment in the work, unity and more effective ways of working together, minimising confusion and blame. This can help team members to achieve increasingly ambitious outcomes and build a sense of accomplishment. 
  • Working together to develop efficient systems and processes can reduce stress for team members and ensure that their energy is directed towards the common goal rather than feeling of helplessness, overworked and stressed. 

CompetencePromoting skill and behaviour development and growth helps to achieve positive mindsets and self-worth 

  • Coaching and feedback skills can help everyone to develop towards personal mastery, enabling more delegation and sharing opportunities throughout the workforce. This ongoing development should give team members a sense that their contribution is valued, unlocking discretionary effort and personal satisfaction. 
  • Discussing and promoting healthy, growth mindsets and reciprocal behaviours can develop morale within teams, and the business, rewarding risk and learning together from failure can encourage all employees to be courageous in experimenting and pushing creativity and innovation. 
  • Encouraging and rewarding knowledge sharing and collaboration can signal to employees that their success is linked to the success of others, promoting respect and inclusive ways of working and the constructive behaviours within teams and across the broader business. This can lead to a decrease in isolation and loneliness, which in turn, may well have positive impacts on individual mental health and flow into personal lives. 

3Cs in action

We have been working with a business-critical team in a global pharma business, building the 3Cs framework into their ways of working in order to improve collaboration, recognize interdependencies and enable the team to achieve more with limited resources.

The team started working on clarity – building a shared vision and goals, which they aligned both upwards to the overall vision and goals of the business, and downwards to individual KPIs and personal objectives.

Next, they took a dive into climate – in particular building a learning culture underpinned by a growth mindset and trusting relationships. They found that as they shared more of their personal objectives and experiences, they began to naturally and confidently strengthen relationships within and outside the team.

In terms of competence the team have worked hard on their feedback and coaching skills to provide mutual support. They developed a 5-step Personal Effectiveness Plan which defines their agreed attitudes, behaviours and ways of working to enable them to optimize their performance both individually and as a team. Also, to be more effective in working with other teams in the organization.

The outcomes have been impressive – retention is high, and several members have achieved promotions. The team is Australia based, but has taken a major role in leading global decision making in their area of specialism within the global organisation.  Their template for priority setting was rolled out throughout the Asia Region and is now being implemented globally.

Team members feel a greater sense of belonging and engagement which flows through to performance

‘The biggest difference I see in this team is the transparency of information sharing and the inclusiveness with which the team makes decisions. This makes me feel a deeper bond to the core concept of the team and a stronger ownership of the outcomes.

This new approach has future-proofed the team by making them more able to address changing market conditions:

‘We are working smarter as a team, so that as new challenges present themselves, we have a mindset for prioritization and reinvention. Nothing is off the table – so we reflect and learn together to develop new ways of working that serve the business effectively.’

The team leader is convinced that the 3Cs framework and the confidence that team members have to feel included, speak up and challenge allows them to contribute in a way that drives the team and the business forward.

‘This cultural transformation has delivered greater alignment to the organization strategy, better efficiency in delivering team projects, skill building for all team members as they support each other to learn, and speeded up onboarding of new team members. It’s utterly transformed the team and how they feel about their work and about their team mates.’

Learn more about how LIW can support your team or business in a cultural transformation here

Coaching to sustain Psychological Safety 

Just as a sports team would train for individual strengths as well as team performance, so teams working in organisations should not expect to achieve Psychological Safety just by individual leadership development. We would advocate a combination of individual skill building and team coaching to support and maintain a healthy and inclusive culture where individuals feel that they are being supported to reach their full potential.

Learn more about LIW individual and team coaching services here

 

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