Two conversations struck me this week which at the outset did not appear to be related to psychological safety. The first comment was from a manager in a change team working on digitising their processes. She said “I don’t know the technological side of things, so I let others play to their strengths”. This was in response to a challenge to her that she never speaks up in meetings, not even to ask questions. The next comment was from a manager in a medium sized firm undergoing retrenchments due to their workload dramatically reducing with the onset of the COVID19 pandemic. He said “we work well as a team, we collaborate well, we get along well”. This was in response to a question as to how the team could be more efficient and solve problems better and be more critical in their thinking. Both contexts at the outset appear positive to the managers- on the one hand allowing for expert opinion, and on the other hand a team that relates well. Yet both are signs of a weak psychological safety.
Psychological safety is strong when team members feel safe:
- To comment
- To challenge
- To ask
- To fail
- To learn
It is broadly defined as “a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves” (Amy C. Edmondson)
In the first team the business and process expert withheld her questions, her curiosity, her contribution for the expert opinion. Yet in this context of solving for a new digital process all perspectives are needed to find not only the technical solution, but one that serves the business and the function. Not feeling comfortable to ask and comment meant key insights and explorations were withheld. In the second team, the team was in the mindtrap of agreement (Jennifer Garvey Berger), that the sense of belonging felt safer in a threatening context, much more so than disagreeing would. Disagreement could mean isolation or even loss of membership in the team. To lose a sense of belonging in times of potential retrenchments is an existential threat to identity and future security. So this team has low psychological safety as it did not challenge or learn. This is the time that the team is being called on to think critically and engage in debate around how to be more efficient hence, ironically, to contribute to the sustained livelihood of the business. Low psychological safety in these teams presented itself as amicable, caring, and in deferential behaviours.
Naturally a manager does not want to see the converse of “obnoxious aggression” or “ruinous empathy” (Kim Scott). But especially in uncertain times a manager needs a team to have a healthy dose of discussion, to be able express views freely and respectfully, to be able to ask without fear of reprisal or shame. In this way a team can come to good ideas and it can come to surface issues that may have caused harm down the way. This harm may take the form of rebellion, resistance or disengagement.
The manager wants to stay alert to how the team is engaging and to foster an environment of open and frank conversation. Notice all signs that may indicate a weakening of psychological safety and call it, acknowledge it. This takes particular attention from the manager when the team is working remotely and online. Notice virtual body language and even set a tone of cameras being on all the time. Even notice in communications if suddenly the whole team is being cc’d on emails, and if references are made to your name or instructions, and if defensiveness kicks in. These are signs of a potential downward spiral of a loss of trust in the team.
A manager can build psychological safety in these ways:
- Check in on how the team member is doing personally and emotionally daily. Support open sharing and do not feel you have to ‘rescue’ but enable the person to take action if need be to address any issues
- Ask the team to reflect weekly on what is working, what is not working and what they might want to do differently as a team. Coach the team on giving feedback on specific examples, experiences or behaviours in order to know what needs to change. And be sure the team follows up on their commitments. Part of the changes may be systemic or in processes, in which case they can solve for this and see how they can overcome any barriers to their open collaboration.
- In meetings give each person a chance to share their views on a topic with equal air time. Coach the team to be curious, listen and check understanding. That is before responding.
- Role model the behaviours of psychological safety sharing appropriately your feelings, experiences and questions, as well as to capture differences in perspectives.
- Share affirming feedback and receive feedback also critical feedback. Maintain a growth mindset and willingness to learn, from mistakes as well!
- Call it when psychological safety is challenged in the team and reflect collectively on the way forward.
- Enjoy the pace and tone that an engaging team can bring and be sure to acknowledge progress and achievements by the team including learning opportunities!