In 2012 Google ran an internal study, Project Aristotle, to determine what factors created their best teams. They found that the number one factor was ‘psychological safety.’ So it makes sense that, when we think about creating great cultures, this must be one of the elements our organisations should focus on.
Psychological safety comprises two key components and empowers team members to try new things (that may fail) without fear of ridicule or rejection.
The first component is ‘social sensitivity’ – taking time to connect with others on a personal level. For example, before starting a meeting, you check-in with team members to see how their week has been. Social sensitivity can also involve being fully ‘present’ when listening to others and displaying an open body posture.
The second component is that every team member gets (approximately) equal air time. This provides the opportunity for all voices to be heard and is part of feeling included.
From what we know about brain science, this makes sense. Matthew D. Lieberman, author of Social, has done some great research about the human need for connection. When we feel connected and safe, we are far more likely to perform better.
Here are some questions to help you determine what work might need to be done, to help build more psychological safety in your organisation.
HOW DO THE LEADERS HANDLE PRESSURE?
One positive aspect of disruption, particularly if you are a leader who wants to continue to develop and grow, is that it highlights areas you need to work on. Under pressure, unless you have done the work, you will tend to revert to type. Organisations must look to how their leaders handle pressures, like disruption, particularly when they are stressed.
For example, if your leaders are calm under pressure, they influence others to also be calm under pressure. This sets your organisation up well during disruption, as your teams can think clearly, collaborate, adapt and innovate.
The opposite is also true. If your leaders are reactive under stress, then that will impact across your organisation, resulting in more people being stressed, which triggers poorer problem-solving, decision-making and collaboration.
IS IT SAFE TO SUGGEST NEW IDEAS OR TRY NEW APPROACHES?
Organisations and leaders that value employee psychological safety will be rewarded with employees proposing new ideas and trying new ways of doing things.
Reviewing how new ideas and approaches are supported (or not) is important. It is also worth reviewing how long it takes ideas to be approved. Are you losing your innovative people because they are tired of slow or no progress?
For example, imagine working in an organisation where you come up with an idea that will help your organisation perform better. You take it to your boss, who needs to put their stamp on it, who sends it to their boss who also needs to put their stamp on it, who sends it to their boss who needs to put their stamp on it, and at some stage the idea comes back to you with lots of changes that effectively keep things as they are. You get the idea. Some organisational cultures are just too slow and risk averse, so things end up staying pretty much as they are. So their innovative employees tend to leave, frustrated at the lack of progress.
Others actively encourage innovation, adaption and flexibility. The organisational structure might be flatter and leaner, or the organisation’s hierarchy is bypassed when new ideas are considered.
What happens when a new idea is suggested? Is there a quick ‘No, but’, or is a safe space created to encourage that idea to be explored? Even starting to catch the ‘No, buts’ and replace them with ‘Yes, and’ can help encourage people to contribute new ideas and ways of doing things.
If you want your organisation to be adaptable and innovative, then it needs to create a space where it is safe to suggest new idea and to try new approaches. This also means examining how your organisation treats ‘failure’.
HOW DOES YOUR ORGANISATION DEAL WITH FAILURE?
Failure is part of the innovation process. Examining how your organisation deals with failure is important.
Have you ever experienced a boss who was way more interested in showing the organisation how great they were, while making sure everyone knows that any failures or problems in their work area were created by someone else? We inherently distrust this type of boss because we know they don’t have our back.
This type of boss makes it less safe to try new things.
How does your organisation handle failure? Is it accepted as part of the culture and used to learn lessons to improve as the organisation moves forward? Or is failure viewed as a CLM (career limiting move) that effectively ends peoples’ careers in the organisation?
ARE PEOPLE MORE CURIOUS OR JUDGEMENTAL?
Teams that value psychological safety tend to be curious. They know they don’t know everything and need to stay open to new ideas and possibilities. Curiosity is encouraged.
Compare this with organisations that are less curious, more judgemental.
Do you like to be judged? It is very rare that someone says they like being judged. It tends to trigger a threat response in our brain. This means people are not going to perform at their best.
If we want to create a great culture then curiosity needs to be the norm. Even using the ‘Yes, and’ approach when listening to people’s suggestions, instead of the ‘No, but’ can help. Encouraging people to collect and use great questions can help encourage curiosity.
Leaders who are calm, present and ask: ‘Tell me more.…’ also encourage curiosity.
WHAT DOES YOUR CULTURE REWARD?
It is important to look at what your organisation’s culture rewards. With disruption, you need cultures that foster teamwork and collaboration. It is rare that one great idea is transformed into an innovation by just one person.
This is also why diversity and inclusion are key parts of a great culture. When we have diversity of thought and perspectives, we see things that a homogenous team can’t. When people feel included, they are more likely to bring ideas and perspectives that would have never seen the light of day in a less inclusive environment. This helps us to ‘think outside the box’ as an organisation.
I love Margaret Heffernan’s TED talk, Forget the Pecking Order at Work, which demonstrates why collaboration is generally a much better trait for an organisation than competition. When we reward people for competition, it generally becomes ‘each person for themselves’. If you think about a lot of rewards systems in organisations, they really just encourage people to think about themselves (at least from a financial rewards perspective).
Many organisations have realised that collaboration is critical if they want to navigate this period of disruption well. They look at structures, financial rewards, etc. and set them up to reward collaboration instead of competition.
Psychological safety is essential if you want a culture that will be able to adapt and thrive during this disruption. Taking the time to look at different ways to improve psychologically safety in your organisation is really important.
We hope you have enjoyed this blog. We’d love to hear about other tactics you’ve used to help create psychological safety in your workplace. Please feel free to share with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.