3 Ways to Nurture Psychological Safety
Google’s two-year study, Project Aristotle, discovered that psychological safety is the most important variable in successful teams. It is a phrase that some react negatively to, as it doesn’t seem to fit well in a corporate context. It essentially describes the inter-personal safety that exists within teams where people feel comfortable to express themselves and to be themselves. They are not hindered by a fear of hierarchy or of looking stupid. With so many organisations today seeking collaboration, agility, engagement and innovation, this is certainly a hot topic, whether you like the term or not.
My passion in this area is rooted in a corporate career that was low on psychological safety – too many meetings where nobody said what they really thought and most just went along with what the most senior person in the room said. Sticking your neck out was a risk that did not always turn out well. I have been shamed for asking questions, labelled as non-compliant and have been advised to “play the game” by mentors. I am passionate about working to change this by focusing on the science behind behaviour.
So where to start?
The challenge is to develop new ways of interacting, that are not innate on an individual level and don’t ordinarily exist on an organisational level. While there are many factors that contribute to safe and inclusive cultures, I consider three leadership capabilities imperative to safety: vulnerability, listening and feedback.
Leadership vulnerability is likely the most important capability to build. The reason for this is that it creates loops of vulnerability that engender belonging and trust. Where these loops exist, co-operation improves by 24%. The odd thing is that we generally feel that in order to be vulnerable, we need to trust first, but in fact, vulnerability precedes trust. While it is generally difficult for us to walk the earth without our armour, it is even more so at work. So, this one requires both courage and practise.
Listening for meaning, without interrupting, is a powerful way to build safety and collaboration. It sounds so simple but listening well is exceptionally hard. As humans we have a deep need to be heard and to feel that we can contribute to something meaningful. Leaders can spend up to 80% of their day listening! Many of us think we are pretty good listeners, but this is not the reality. We are mostly listening with our own frame of reference in mind, and so we need work on ourselves, to stay open and to truly empathise with the speaker in order to see from their point of view.
In this regard, I think the Enneagram is a wonderful tool for building the capability to listen compassionately to others. Its power lies in understanding the motivation that drives behaviour and in knowing that there are nine archetypes who will respond differently in the same situation. It really helps to open to the door to curiosity.
Constructive feedback is a practise that frequently undermines safety. Unfortunately, many of us still believe that we can help people and improve organisations by sharing our perspective on their performance, approach or style. It’s not that there is always negative intent, we just don’t understand the effect we have on the brain (effectively a threat response). This an old paradigm that ignores the science - a bit like still thinking that avocados are bad for you. It also encourages conformity, reduces agency and impairs learning. So no, I don’t believe in radical candour. Leadership needs to develop the ability to focus on strengths, engage in positive enquiry and reflect and dissect excellence. Retrospective reviews of performance should be done by individuals themselves.
Psychological safety requires focused effort on behalf of individuals and organisations, as the structures and spaces need to be in place to support this. It is not just about being nice. But it is so important, that it is worth starting, even if its not done perfectly. In the words of Harvard’s Amy Edmondson,
“We need people to bring their absolute full selves to the challenging jobs ahead.”
If you are interested in working with us or learning more about our Psychological Safety workshop: