This is the fourth in a series of short articles I am writing to assist leaders create and sustain high performing teams. Whether you are a CEO or a Project Team Leader, creating and maintaining a great team is a constant challenge. These articles are designed to help.
When people don’t feel “psychologically safe”, team performance suffers. Team members often fail to share important information because trust is low, unhealthy conflicts are common, and the quality of decision making is poor.
As a leader it is useful to recognise that creating a psychologically safe climate is essential for your team’s performance, and to ask: What am I doing to help or hinder psychological safety?
Amy Edmondson, the eminent Harvard Academic, has spent a large chunk of her life researching psychological safety. In her fabulous book, The Fearless Organization, (2019), she outlines features of a psychologically safe climate:
- People are comfortable expressing and being themselves
- They feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution
- They are confident they can speak up and will not be humiliated, ignored, or blamed
- They know they can ask questions when unsure of something
- They tend to trust and respect their colleagues
- They candidly engage in productive conflict to learn from different points of view.
Several years ago, I was asked to work with a team in a not-for-profit organisation. The team’s leader was smart, experienced, and motivated, but he was also under the pump, stressed and working in a fast growing organisation with a demanding CEO. He felt his team members were kicking individual goals, but that they were not working together to achieve their potential as a team, and he wanted to work with me to achieve that.
To begin with, and before working with the team, I interviewed each of the team members to gain an insight into how they saw the team performing.
One of the team members, Jan, told me a story that demonstrated a serious lack of psychological safety within the team. She explained that the organisation had invested a large sum of money purchasing the license for a training program from a prominent international provider. The program was in Jan’s area of expertise and she said she had serious concerns about the effectiveness and ongoing cost associated with the program. In her mind, it would have been more effective and far cheaper to work with a local university which could create a customised program that met the specific needs of the organisation’s clients. When asked if she had discussed this with the team, she responded:
“Oh no, I’d never do that. It wouldn’t be well received at all and there is no way I’m going to share my views. The organisation has invested far too much time and effort on the current program, and my leader and his boss really don’t want to hear what I have to say. So, I stay silent”.
Despite the team being made up of experienced and considerate people, she did not feel psychologically safe enough to express her views. This needed to change, and it became a focus of the work we did with the team.
Edmondson’s research and my own experience make it clear that if you don’t create a climate of psychological safety for your team, you end up with a culture of fear that limits performance.
Three steps to success
Edmondson suggests there are three key steps for leaders to create psychological safety with their teams. First, they need to “Set the Stage”, then they need to “Invite Participation” and finally “Respond Productively”.
Setting the Stage
Setting the stage involves leaders stepping up and framing expectations about performance and failure, uncertainty, and interdependence. This involves identifying what’s at stake, why it matters and for whom. The senior leader needs to make it clear to each team member that their team is performing purposeful, challenging work that requires them to share their perspective – and speak up.
A critical part of setting the stage, particularly in environments where psychological safety has not historically been high, is to reframe the role of the boss. Edmondson talks about the importance of shifting the frame from one where the boss has all the answers, gives orders and evaluates others, to one where the boss sets direction, invites input to clarify and improve, and creates conditions for continued learning. Successful leaders need to make it clear to team members that they will no longer be treated as subordinates who must do as they’re told, but rather as contributors with crucial knowledge and insights that must be shared in order to achieve desired outcomes.
I was recently working with a team in a government agency which had previously had a very dictatorial “command and control” type leader. The new leader, when he came on board, took a while to realise that he needed to set the stage – to help his people begin to understand how he worked and what he was looking for from them. Until he spelt out his different frame of reference, he was simply becoming more and more frustrated by what he saw as a lack of engagement from his team, who were all waiting for him to tell them what to do!
Once he had set the stage and spelt out how he saw his role as boss and their role as contributors, the team slowly began to grow in confidence and respond in the way he desired.
The second step to creating psychological safety is inviting participation in a way that people find compelling and genuine.
Edmondson draws on the work of Edgar Schein, author of Humble Inquiry (2013) and notes that two essential behaviours that signal an invitation to contribute is genuine are, firstly, to adopt a mindset of situational humility and, secondly, to engage in proactive inquiry.
Edmondson observes that no one wants to risk speaking up in an environment where the boss appears to think he or she knows everything. So, successful leaders encourage participation by demonstrating a learning mindset which blends humility with curiosity. When these leaders acknowledge their own errors and fallibility, their people are more willing to risk speaking up.
Engaging in the practice of proactive inquiry encourages team members to actively participate and share their opinions.
Proactive inquiry involves bringing a curious mindset to the situation and asking great open questions. Here, Edmondson notes that:
“When asked thoughtfully, a good question indicates to others that their voices are desired – instantly making that moment psychologically safe for offering a response.”(pg. 171)
In my government agency scenario mentioned earlier, I found myself asking the leader how he invited participation – was he making it easy for people to share their thoughts and views? We realised that while he was a genuinely humble leader, he had not been making it easy for his people to contribute by asking good open questions as part of his engagement with the team. When he started to do this, things changed, and people began, in his words, “to step up”.
To give you a sense of what I mean by asking great open questions, here are six questions that I suggest clients use:
- I’m not sure of the best way to proceed, but was thinking … what do you think?
- What concerns do you have about what’s being proposed?
- What might we be missing?
- I’m curious about how you came to a landing on that decision. What influenced your thinking?
- How might we do this even better?
- What would be an alternative approach?
The third element to reinforcing a climate of psychological safety is for leaders to respond productively to the risks people take.
Edmondson suggests that productive responses are characterised by three elements: expressions of appreciation, de-stigmatising failure, and sanctioning clear violations.
Expressing appreciation when someone speaks up is critical. It doesn’t matter if the comment is good, bad or indifferent; it is important to create an environment where people feel their views are valued. That means your first response must be one of appreciation – “Thanks for sharing your view on that”. Then you can agree, educate, or respectfully challenge, but you want people to feel their voice and effort is valued. As Stanford Professor Carol Dweck notes, it is important to praise people for effort, regardless of outcome. When this happens, people are eager to try new things and willing to persevere despite adversity and failure. See Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, (2016).
Edmondson suggests successful leaders de-stigmatise “intelligent failure”. She notes there is a difference between intelligent failures that are a natural by-product of healthy experimentation, where people and the team learn and grow, and other types of “less intelligent” failure. As such, intelligent failures should be recognised for the value they bring the organisation. In contrast, failure that results from the violation of organisational rules or values, or failure that is caused by the unintelligent repetition of previous mistakes, is a different kettle of fish.
Edmondson notes that psychological safety is enhanced when clear violations of sanctioned rules or expected behaviours are called out.
“Most people are thoughtful enough to recognize (and appreciate) that when people violate rules or repeatedly take risky shortcuts, they are putting themselves, their colleagues, and their organization at risk. In short, psychological safety is reinforced rather than harmed by fair, thoughtful responses to potentially dangerous, harmful, or sloppy behaviour” (pg. 178).
A former client of mine shared a story that clearly illustrates this final point. He had been appointed as general manager of a government agency that, in the previous two years, had some of the lowest employee engagement scores in the state. The organisation had a sad history of tolerating poor performance and poor behaviour by entrenched members of staff.
He began holding people accountable for both their performance and their behaviour, and ultimately sanctioned the poor behaviour of a long-standing recalcitrant employee, issuing him with a termination notice, which was unheard of at the time. A long and challenging court case followed which, to many people’s surprise, found in the agency’s favour and the dismissal was upheld. The following year, the agency’s employee engagement scores topped the state. His action had sent a powerful message that poor behaviour would no longer be tolerated and, in doing so, created an environment where people felt more psychologically safe.
The bottom line
If you want to create a psychologically safe climate for your team:
- Help people understand that you genuinely believe the team will benefit if everyone shares their views and concerns
- Manage expectations by helping people understand that not every discussion will be a free-for-all. Create a process where you clarify if a topic is for information only, consultation or decision
- Create opportunities for your people to participate. Make it easy for them to express their opinions. Ask open questions and invite participation
- Listen respectfully to what people have to say, even when you don’t agree with what they are saying
- Acknowledge and express appreciation when people speak up and share their thoughts
- Admit when you make mistakes and be willing to adopt other people’s ideas
- Tolerate intelligent failure
- Have the courage to call out poor behaviour and performance.
Enjoy your week.
For more information about building high-performing teams, please visit my blog at https://www.balancedcurve.com/blog/.
Executive & Team Coach, Facilitator, Conflict Management Consultant & Mediator