What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is a topic on the up and up. Let’s take a quick look at what it is, why it’s trending and why it’s important.

Quick question first though.
How can you uncover a performance issue or a leadership issue in your business when teams don’t feel comfortable to speak up and tell someone if they are being treated unfairly?

In a full day workshop I ran with a team it was titled… “how to design our day”. This team was stuck, stressed and underperforming. The brief was to help them design a workday day that benefits them and improves their experience of day to day work.

The team had suffered 70% turnover, and it wasn’t slowing down anytime soon.

The CEO and HR manager were at a loss. They had asked questions, but no one was telling the all out truth as to what was happening.

After kicking off we came to a standstill. And it happened quick.

About half of the room didn’t want to write any ideas or feedback onto their post it notes. These same individuals claimed they couldn’t be of assistance because they had only just started.

Another said they couldn’t speak up because they’ve offered ideas before, had a bad experience and they were worried about the repercussions.

Half of the room struggled to put anything down. Not a word. They didn’t want anything coming back to them. They didn’t want their handwriting recognised.

We put down tools (post its and sharpies) and had an open discussion.

What came next unearthed tears, fury, and despair.

A manager they reported to had ensured they weren’t allowed to speak to anyone outside of their team. He managed up incredibly well, but the CEO and HR manager knew something was amiss.

The manager had been viciously bullying the team for some time. Thankfully after the workshop he was instantly dismissed but not after doing some serious harm to his team who had in their words ‘experienced hell’ at work.

How can this be avoided?

Taking actionable steps to ensuring people feel free to speak has benefits far beyond just avoiding the toxic scenarios such as this.

The actionable steps lie in the process of intentionally fostering psychological safety.

What is psychological safety?

Team psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that it’s OK to take risks, to express their ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes — all without fear of negative consequences.

As Amy Edmondson author or Fearless Organisation puts it, “it’s felt permission for candor.”
Leaders play a particular role in fostering psychological safety as their authority is outweighed in the room. However, it’s important to note that psychological safety is co-created. That is that everyone in the room has an impact on how others feel.

If someone displays bad behaviours for example and it isn’t rectified then trust and respect can be broken with the leader who has failed to provide a safe environment.

Why is it so important?

First, psychological safety leads to team members feeling more engaged and motivated because they feel that their contributions matter and that they’re able to speak up without fear of retribution.

Second, it can lead to better decision-making, as people feel more comfortable voicing their opinions and concerns, which often leads to a more diverse range of perspectives being heard and considered.

Third, it can foster a culture of continuous learning and improvement, as team members feel comfortable sharing their mistakes and learning from them. (This is what my boss was doing in the opening story.)

All of these benefits — the impact on a team’s performance, innovation, creativity, resilience, and learning — have been proven in research over the years, most notably in Edmondson’s original research and in a study done at Google.

That research, known as Project Aristotle, aimed to understand the factors that impacted team effectiveness across Google. Using over 30 statistical models and hundreds of variables, that project concluded that who was on a team mattered less than how the team worked together.

And the most important factor was psychological safety.

Further research has shown the incredible downsides of not having psychological safety, including negative impacts on employee well-being, including stress, burnout, and turnover, as well as on the overall performance of the organisation.

Back to my first point, however. Why has it become such a point of conversation. Why now?

Why now?

On 24 December 2022 Work health and safety regulations came into effect in Australia for the control of psychosocial risks in the workplace.

These regulations will require a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) to eliminate psychosocial risks, or to minimise them so far as is reasonably practicable.

This new duty places psychosocial hazards on the same footing as other significant physical hazards such as falls or operating machinery.

These new regulations will ensure that workplaces act consciously to manage and address psychological risks to all workers.

Firstly, what does psychosocial hazards actually include and how can psychological safety help organisations combat these hazards.

Hazards include:
– Traumatic events and harmful behaviours: bullying, harassment, violence, aggression, discrimination
– Not providing adequate Support and Job Control
– Lack of Role clarity
– Procedural justice (fair decision making, communication, accessibility, respect and dignity for all workers)

For the list in it’s entirety you can visit: Safe Work Australia

It has many leaders, HR professionals and business owners digging deep to find solutions to problems that they may not know exist.

By ensuring people feel free to speak up in various forums it negates the risk of people feeling helpless in dire or uncomfortable situations at work.

If people are tied up in bad behaviours at work you can be assured nothing much is getting achieved and you get disengaged employees. So goes the revolving door of talent.
How do you prove you are providing a safe working environment?

Measuring your teams psycholical safety can be a great starting point to unlock how people are feeling within their teams and whats holding them back.

High performing teams have high psychological safety as we know from Googles study and many more that have followed since.

If you’d like to measure your teams psychological safety or you’d like to start actioning some simple steps to embed equal voice in your teams interactions and meetings feel free to reach out. I can show you how to get started.