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Psychological Safety - Buzz Word or Game Changer?

The term psychological safety is seriously starting to permeate the wider consciousness these days. Articles in such well bred publications as the Harvard Business Review and Forbes abound on the topic, directly linking it to high performance, happier teams and better financial outcomes. The virtues of building fear free teams are quoted as too irresistible to be ignored and only the foolish would consider themselves above building it in to their leadership practise (and it is a practise, like anything you really want to win at long term).

So, is it a game changer that can transform your team, organisation and life or is it just another buzzword? In my view and experience it’s one of the most powerful tools to be introduced into the sphere of collaboration for some time.

Let’s be clear, it’s been around for some time, first brought to us by William Kahn in 1990 as "being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career". My first discovery of the idea of personal safety in a business performance context was through Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team - “Dysfunction #1: Absence of Trust, The fear of being vulnerable with team members prevents the building of trust within the team.” Lencioni doesn’t talk about psychological safety specifically but his Absence of Trust is almost exactly the same in that it describes how being able to be vulnerable (speaking up about concerns, mistakes, crazy ideas, problems) builds trust which results in better results for the team. Trust is a key tenet of psychological safety.

Now every leader knows trust is important, but they sometimes build and wield it in some odd ways, for example the let’s fall backwards into each other’s arms on an away day technique or the widely held (erroneous and arrogant) belief that the leader’s trust needs to be earned. If someone joins your team who has gone through your selection process and taken the leap of faith to come to work with you, has been working their entire career to a strong ethical code and built up their expertise, who on earth are you to make them earn your trust? And how in the world do you expect to get the best performance from them when they can’t trust you because you don’t trust them? Gift people your trust up front and then work hard with the team to help build trust and psychological safety amongst yourselves - yes that includes you, leader.

My personal hero, Harvard’s Amy Edmondson has led some of the most recent research and writing on psychologicalsafety (I recommend reading her books, following her on social media, watching the TED Talk, whichever works for you it’ll be worth it), providing many robust case studies from the medical, banking, aeronautical, mining, technology, film and other industries where psychological safety has saved lives and made millions. In Edmondson’s definition, “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” She also quotes the increasingly well documented Google research Project Aristotle the findings of which clearly indicate that “psychological safety is the single greatest correlate between a team and it’s success.” Powerful data.

In real life terms, understanding psychological safety is one of the most intuitive ways you can build trust and increase performance in your team. Google’s findings give us at least two astoundingly easy ways to effect the change in our teams - conversational turn taking and ostentatious listening, the last of which is one of the finest terms I have heard in some time. These are two of the fundamental factors in good leadership and have been core parts of behavioural learning for decades, now we are turning them into success factors in collaboration. Conversational turn taking is giving everyone in the team a chance to speak and there are a variety of methods and tricks to make this comfortable for both the larger and less reluctant voices in a team. Ostentatious listening is creating and role modelling a culture in which listening to each other is a valued skill which unlocks the potential ideas and insights of the team. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s all to do with rebuilding human connections in teams.

At the executive and senior leadership team level it is doubly important as the likelihood of lower levels of psychological safety grows but the risks are much higher due to the level of responsibility these leaders hold not just for business performance but for business culture. When there is a lower degree of honesty and trust in those teams, the stakes are much higher. Senior leaders perceive a greater level of personal risk in speaking up and impression management is a learned ‘skill’ to protect their status. On the up side, building psychological safety in the C-Suite or senior teams has significant and far reaching effects on both financial performance and people’s wellbeing.

So how do we stop psychological safety from being consigned to the universal rubbish bin of buzzwords? It’s helpful here to realise that many items moved into the buzzword bucket after a period of being embedded into our psyche are actually essential and useful tools, but we as humans are guilty of seeking the ‘silver bullet’ solution and move on quickly when we don’t get immediate results.

- If you don’t have a collaboration and teamwork workstream already, get one. Then build psychological safety into that workstream as a baseline factor.

- If you have leadership development programmes, make sure collaboration and psychologicalsafety workshops are in the design of those programmes.

- Make it part of your cultural vernacular, use the tools in your team meetings to check in on project teams who are at the coal face making the money and support teams who oil the machine.

- Observe the difference it makes to relationships with clients and use it to truly create a ‘one team’ approach (another buzzword that needs to be closer to reality)

Psychological safety is here to stay, it’s our choice whether we make it a buzzword or a game changer.

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