The Essential Role of Psychological Safety in Building High Performance Teams
Dr Anthony Kenneson-Adams. DBA. MA. BSc(Hons). FIoL, Head of Learning and Knowledge Transfer, Project7 Consultancy
Psychological safety is crucial for building high-performance teams in all areas of business as it fosters an environment where team members feel safe to express themselves, take risks, share ideas, and collaborate effectively. With over 30 years in industry developing high performance teams, here are some of the benefits I have seen to growing psychological safety in the workplace.
1. Encourage Open Communication: Psychological safety in the workplace allows team members to freely express their thoughts, opinions, and concerns without fear of judgment or negative consequences. This promotes open and honest communication within the team, leading to better problem-solving, innovation, and decision-making. I have seen the most unexpected member of a team introduce great ideas when they have felt safe to speak up.
2. Supports Risk-Taking and Learning: When team members feel psychologically safe, they are more willing to take calculated risks and step outside their comfort zones. They feel confident in experimenting, making mistakes, and learning from them. This fosters a culture of continuous improvement and innovation within the team.
3. Enhances Collaboration and Trust: Psychological safety in the workplace creates a sense of trust and mutual respect among team members. They feel comfortable asking for help, sharing knowledge, and collaborating effectively. This leads to increased synergy, better teamwork, and higher productivity.
4. Promotes Diverse Perspectives: When team members feel safe to voice their opinions, it encourages the inclusion of diverse perspectives. This diversity of thought can lead to more creative solutions, better problem-solving, and a broader range of ideas.
5. Reduces Fear and Anxiety: Psychological safety reduces fear and anxiety within the team. When individuals are not afraid of being judged or ridiculed, they can focus their energy on their work and perform at their best. This improves overall team well-being and job satisfaction.
6. Builds Resilience and Adaptability: In psychologically safe environments, team members are more resilient in the face of challenges and change. They are willing to embrace new ideas, adapt to new situations, and overcome obstacles together, leading to increased team resilience and agility.
7. Retains and Attracts Top Talent: High-performing individuals are more likely to thrive in psychologically safe teams. When organizations prioritize psychological safety, it helps retain existing talent and attract new top performers who seek a supportive and inclusive work environment.
Psychological safety can be viewed as a developmental process that progresses through four stages. These stages, as described by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, are as follows:
1. Inclusion Safety: In this initial stage, team members feel included, accepted, and respected. They believe that their opinions and contributions matter and that they are valued members of the team. Inclusion safety sets the foundation for psychological safety by establishing a sense of belonging and trust. This process starts the first day a new team member enters your facility. Orientation is the first exposure to your business culture so think about how you will get this key step right first time.
2. Learner Safety: Once inclusion safety is established, team members begin to feel comfortable taking interpersonal risks and asking questions without the fear of being judged or embarrassed. Learner safety encourages a growth mindset, where individuals are open to new ideas, admit mistakes, and seek opportunities for learning and improvement. It promotes a culture of curiosity, experimentation, and shared learning which will drive value to your bottom line.
3. Contributor Safety: In the contributor safety stage, team members feel empowered to express their thoughts, opinions, and insights freely. This is why you employed them in the first place. They believe their ideas will be listened to and considered seriously by the team. Contributor safety encourages active participation, collaboration, and the sharing of diverse perspectives. It promotes a sense of ownership and responsibility for the team’s outcomes and fosters an environment where everyone’s contributions are valued.
4. Challenger Safety: The final stage of psychological safety is challenger safety. In this stage, team members feel comfortable challenging the status quo, offering dissenting opinions, and voicing concerns or reservations. They have the confidence to express differing viewpoints and engage in constructive debates. Here is where your new hire really contributes to your business. Challenger safety encourages critical thinking, innovation, and the ability to question assumptions or existing practices. It allows teams to identify and address potential issues, make informed decisions, and continuously improve.
It is important to note that these stages are not strictly linear or mutually exclusive, but they are indicative of the integration of your people into a high-performance team. Teams can move back and forth between stages, and be aware that not all team members may progress at the same pace. The goal is to continually foster an environment that supports and promotes psychological safety across all stages, creating a culture of trust, collaboration, and high performance. If you want to build a high-performance team then you can’t afford to carry passengers, everyone must be a driver for change, and employing a positive program of growth through psychological safety is a key component for your success.
So how do you grow psychological safety in the workplace? Though the approach a business will adopt is predicated on their industry and culture here are some ideas that I have used that have proved successful.
1. Establish Trust and Mutual Respect: Building trust is fundamental to creating a psychologically safe environment. Encourage all leaders to model trust and respect in their interactions. This will then set the tone for the entire team.
2. Encourage Open Communication: Create opportunities for open and transparent communication where all team members feel encouraged to express their thoughts, ideas, and concerns. Foster a culture that values and appreciates diverse or even ‘disruptive’ perspectives. Establish regular team meetings, feedback sessions, or other platforms for sharing thoughts and feedback openly.
3. Embrace and Learn from Mistakes: Encourage a growth mindset within the team, emphasizing that mistakes are opportunities for learning and improvement rather than sources of blame or punishment. When mistakes occur, focus on understanding what went wrong, how to rectify the situation, and how to prevent similar issues in the future. This approach reduces fear of failure and promotes a culture of continuous learning and improvement. In Lean manufacturing we promote fail safe, fail fast, fail often to drive continuous improvement. This will not happen if people are afraid to take risks and learn from them.
4. Availability: Leaders must be available to their employees to build the sorts or relationships that build trust and confidence. Leaders locked away in their offices do not build business changing relationships that promote psychological safety.
5. Recognizing and valuing diversity: Celebrate and embrace diversity in the workplace, recognizing that everyone brings unique perspectives and experiences to the table.
6. Providing feedback and support: Provide continuous constructive feedback to employees and support them in their efforts to learn and grow. This can help build trust and confidence in the organization and its leaders.
7. Setting clear expectations: Make sure that employees understand what is expected of them, and what they can expect from the organization. This can help reduce anxiety and uncertainty and promote a sense of safety.
8. Fostering a culture of learning: Encourage employees to take risks and try new things, emphasizing that mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow.
9. Supportive Leadership: It is all about leadership. Leadership plays the critical role in creating and maintaining psychological safety. Leaders should provide clear expectations, set realistic goals, and support team members in their growth and development. Encourage leaders to be approachable, supportive, and responsive to team members’ needs.
It’s important to note that building psychological safety in high-performance teams is an ongoing process that requires continuous effort and reinforcement. Regularly evaluate and assess the team’s dynamics, solicit feedback from team members, and make adjustments as needed. By prioritizing psychological safety, teams can cultivate an environment that empowers individuals to contribute their best and thrive collectively. This will sometimes mean that the team leader will feel vulnerable, so be it. At the end of the day, it is what is important for the business and all its people that counts.
My experience is that teams warm to vulnerable leaders far more often than those who are stand offish, unapproachable, and who do not create environments that are safe and that nurture growth and continuous improvement. So my experience is that psychological safety is a foundational element for building high-performance teams. It creates an atmosphere of trust, collaboration, and innovation, enabling team members to bring their best selves to work and achieve exceptional results together. I encourage you to embrace the idea of psychological safety in the workplace and see for your self how it can impact your high-performance teams and improve business.