Our 12 tips for psychological safety
When we talk about creating teams that communicate better, work well together, and feel open enough to voice their ideas, what we are actually describing is psychological safety. Or rather it is psychological safety that underpins all of that good stuff in teams which means they can be truly innovative, coming up with creative solutions to complex problems.
Think of psychological safety as the roots of a particularly delicate flower. You can see these roots but they are feeding and watering the plant, taking in all of the good stuff so that you get a beautiful result. Like a flower, psychological safety needs tending to as well because if it absorbs negativity, or there is a low level of safety, then it can kill off those beautiful outcomes.
Here are 12 ways in which you can nurture the psychological safety of your teams:
1. Be clear on goals
All teams need to know what the goals are and that everyone is working towards the same one.
Imagine if you didn’t have a goal – what would it do for your motivation? How would you know what was important or what to do?
And it’s important to discuss how psychological safety and the behaviours that go with it, help you realise that goal. So people are clear also on the behaviours to adopt.
Psychological safety changes from team to team. Leaders decide what to focus on and what behavioural goals to adopt. Let your team know they can do things differently, that they make a difference, and what success looks like.
2. Be clear on accountabilities
Psychological safety is not about creating an environment where ‘anything goes’. People need to feel ‘safe’ in expressing themselves, but also in knowing that accountability is expected.
Without some order you just have chaos. And people feel uncomfortable when they have no idea what’s expected of them.
What you are looking for is empowered teams that are clear on what they are accountable for and what is expected of them. Have a conversation to make it clear what you expect from them and that includes behaviours like speaking up. Make sure you ask them what they need from you so everyone is clear on boundaries.
3. Frame the work as learning
No-one wants to voice an idea when the boss thinks they know everything. In order for learning to happen, you have to give permission for it; permission to be humble and curious.
Frame the work as a learning exercise. Make it explicit that there’s uncertainty ahead and that you can’t find answers to new problems without a big dose of learning being built in.
4. Say when you do not know
We have conditioned people to feel that it’s unacceptable to not know the answer. And it’s very natural for people to not want to look stupid. We need to change the expectation that not knowing is foolish. And remember the higher up the career ladder you are, there’s more expectation that you must have answers.
To break this illusion we need to create the tone that it’s OK to not know. Start small and celebrate when someone says they don’t know.
When you encourage people to be curious, their brains start to work differently. For example:
If I ask you: “what is the best show on TV?” Your brain goes in search of the answer in a very narrow way. Just watch how your brain is working right now. It’s following a route.
But if I ask you: “what TV programmes you have seen that you think people may like?”
Can you feel how your brain works differently?
The paths are wider, more explorative, with more space for thinking. That’s because you haven’t boxed in the thinking process to go in search of the right answer.
Say when you don’t know, think of how to ask questions that allow people to say they don’t know.
5. Ask questions
David Marquet was a US Navy Nuclear Submarine commander. He spent a year learning all about his nuclear submarine that he was about to take command of. Because nuclear submarine commanders know their stuff and have all the answers.
And then do you know what happened?
They swapped submarines.
And with only two weeks to prepare, he didn’t have a clue how it worked. What did he do? He asked the crew lots and lots of questions. In doing so, he empowered his people.
When you ask questions of your team (or crew), you give them the autonomy to think for themselves.
Make sure you ask good questions and LISTEN.
6. Ask for feedback
Asking for feedback is a great way to build trust in teams. But it needs to be done well. You need to take the time to teach your team good feedback techniques. This helps them learn to give and receive feedback well.
Use phrases like:
What went well?
Could I have done better?
What should we or I do better next time?
Giving and receiving feedback well are skills. Both are harder than you think. And demand a lot of empathy and listening skills. When you move to a feedback culture, you will also start to build retrospectives and learning into the DNA of a team.
7. Allow mistakes
How do kids learn? By trying something, and making mistakes.
Here is what Thomas J Watson, the founder of IBM said:
“Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.”
It is a crucial part of learning.
In fact, it is in our nature to make mistakes. It’s how we have survived and evolved as a species to where we are now. In the words of Fleabag:
“People make mistakes. That’s why they put rubbers on the end of pencils”
But scientific research has shown that animals not only learn from their mistakes, they learn from watching others make mistakes. In doing so, it increases their chances of survival.
We often only see the successful outcome and not the journey of mistakes it took to get there. When this happens, we miss out on valuable experience.
We need to start seeing the journey with all it’s stumbles as worthwhile too. Especially in today’s world where there are no set ways of doing things – no manual to follow. Write it big and tall on your wall – mistakes allow you to learn.
And we quite like what Mr Albert Einstein said:
“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
Wouldn’t that be a foolish approach to not allow mistakes?
8. Be inclusive
Innovation comes from diverse thoughts. And you want to include as many different ways of thinking as possible. Creating true inclusivity.
You need to create a space where people feel safe to contribute their ideas, to speak up no matter who they are.
It’s not enough to just hire a diverse team of smart people – you need to allow that diversity to be seen and expressed – to be included. That means letting everyone be themselves.
To realise the benefits of diverse thought, you have to foster an environment of truly inclusive leadership, that allows diversity to flow so everyone can be themselves.
9. Be a collaborator
We naturally like to be right and when we are faced with conflict, we tend to point score and form sides, with hard lines that we don’t like to cross. This unleashes some nasty behaviours that pop out without us realising it – from our deep primal part of our brain.
When faced with conflict we become competitive and critical. These are not team playing behaviours. We try and win the game and make our side the victors.
It’s us against them. It’s natural and it’s primal. We don’t want a win-win – we want to be right!
That’s not going to create psychological safety. Which means we really need to rethink that ‘desire to win’ auto-response.
We’re going to need to approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary. And where can we start?
When you face conflict, draw on one question only:
‘How can we come to a mutually desirable outcome?’
10. Replace blame with curiosity
When issues arise, remember you do not know the actual reason. Approach your team with curiosity, not blame.
Blame is short-sighted and no-one feels good afterwards. If you blame people for mistakes you create a culture of defensive behaviours as your norm. Then people start hiding things and become disengaged. And they stop telling you things or speaking up. It all starts to be driven by avoiding that shadow of blame.
Let it be known that good employees are expected to make mistakes.
To create psychological safety where people feel safe to speak up, replace blame with curiosity. Find out why something didn’t work rather than pointing fingers. See instead the opportunities for learning and celebrate what you have found out.
Ask questions and be curious.
You only get psychological safety in teams if people listen when others speak up. It’s a two-way transaction. So it’s really important to make sure people feel heard.
Role has an impact on both listening and speaking up. Research by Megan Reitz and John Higgins in their book ‘Speak Up’ found that ‘Getting people to speak up is often less about the less powerful having a voice and more about the more powerful wanting to listen to others throughout the organisation.
Leaders need to be aware of the impact their role has on others. And that be listening they can create psychological safety. Show you are listening by asking good questions. Questions that help find solutions.
12. Remember everyone is human
Remember that everyone else is human too. Well, all have our own views, opinions, struggles, and issues.
And while we need to celebrate the differences because that is what makes us innovative, we also need to remember that we are not that different at all. In the words of Jo Cox: “We have more in common than that which divides us.”
We all have feelings, desires, dreams and issues.
We all have histories and futures.
Find out about each other. See the people around you. A lot of trust comes from taking the time to get to know each other, to understand each other, and having empathy.
Creating psychological safety is an ongoing process, not one that can be done in an afternoon. It takes repeated effort to establish a high level of psychological safety but once you start on this path you will begin to notice positive changes within your teams.
If people feel confident to speak up and become noticed as a team member then your teams will be happier, stronger, and more productive as a result. More work will get done, better ideas will be shared and you will have a blossoming workforce.
One of the ways we do this is using our 12 TIP CARDS to prompt open conversations. Some of these you can see as the graphics on this blog. We have found these to be a popular part of our Psychological Safety Toolkit. If you want to make sure the roots of your team are well-nourished and find more on creating psychological safety, go to our page here.