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Psychological Safety is Not Nice

In my last blog I wrote about what psychological safety is and why it needs to be leveraged as a game changer or successful future ready teams and profitable, successful companies. Then I realised there is a need to clarify what psychological safety is NOT in order to demystify the term. In the words of Amy Edmondson in her book The Fearless Organisation, “Psychological safety isn’t about being nice...isn’t a personality factor...isn’t just another word for trust...isn’t about lowering performance standards.” It’s very easy to put it in the ‘soft skills’ bucket (which I firmly don’t believe in and am always surprised when I find it still in use - soft skills are the hardest and most valuable skills you can use) and see it as a nice to have. This would be an error.

Most importantly, it is not about being nice. Building psychological safety for your team is not about sitting in a circle sharing out praise or brushing over problematic scenarios to help people feel better about themselves. It is about finding a place in which difficult conversations about failure, misjudgements and crazy, left of field ideas become part of the fabric of day to day teaming. At the moment, many teams in companies worldwide are too nice to each other because they don’t feel psychologically safe. They don’t hold each other accountable, challenge each other or dare to share their wildest dreams about what they could achieve together. Conversations are bland, vanilla, boring and disastrous. In the words of Edwin Land, “Politeness is the poison of collaboration.”

In teams where people are not willing to speak up, conversations about critical issues appear on the surface to be successful. Everyone says yes, the plan sounds good to me, I’m on board and the machine rumbles on unchecked, destined for mediocrity. Minor details may get ironed out so it feels like progress is being made but no one deals with the major elephants in the room. Everyone is impression managing like mad. Not being psychologically safe is the easy option on the face of it, as illustrated here:

(Taken from the Amy Edmondson TEDTalk How To Build a Psychologically Safe Team. I love this - you can hear the knowing/ironic/abashed laughter from the audience when it’s shown on screen)

One of the most incisive statements Edmondson makes about this kind of environment is that, while you can mitigate for things people say or do in meetings, you can’t mitigate for what is not said or heard. Not said because a person’s best option in that environment is to stay silent, or not heard because they tried to speak up and were met with dismissiveness, rebuke or spoken over. This should put ice cold fear into the hearts of leaders everywhere.

I’ve had several worrying conversations recently with good people who don’t feel they can challenge their leaders because they are either openly aggressive towards them verbally or highly defensive when they even make suggestions along or make mistakes. So, these people play nice because it’s not worth the consequences of the alternative. The reason they are talking to me though, is because behind the scenes they are frustrated and feel hopeless about the impact they can have working in these teams. What they want and what works best is a place where people feel safe enough to have a good old barney, a verbal fisticuffs, about their different ideas and arrive at something truly, unprecedentedly awesome as a result.

It’s like trust but different. I early on made the mistake of interchanging psychological safety with trust. The truth is they are similar, but again as Edmondson outlines, trust is experienced from one person to another and psychological safety has different characteristics and is experienced at a group level. Trust is characterized by our faith in the particular behaviours and characteristics of another human being governing consistently how they will behave towards us. Trust in a group is characterized by our ability to trust in all the individuals in a group. Psychological safety is a group behavioral norm i.e we know the group will uphold a collective commitment to behave in a certain way, in this case to be open to everyone’s ideas and vulnerabilities.

This is clearly defined for me in engineering project teams I’ve worked with who know each other well so much so they have personal friendships in some cases through years of working on complex, creative buildings and infrastructure projects. These teams have a strong degree of trust but haven’t established the team norms of true, difficult openness and honesty as a group. In this engineering project context this most often translates into not raising issues affecting critical deadlines until they are uncovered and a fear of discussing financial issues early which prevent an open collaborative approach. A psychologically safe team goes beyond knowing and trusting each other to putting the culture and systems in place to ensure everyone in the team has a voice and the confidence to speak up about issues and challenges. When we start to build that approach to psychological safety, we get better at the critical areas of performance most directly related to the all important financial performance of our projects.

Which brings me to the final point from Edmondson’s quote, psychological safety is not about lowering performance standards. I lose count of the number of leaders I have spoken to about giving voice to their teams and sharing control with their teams who have a fearful look in their eyes at the thought of the potential consequences. Some of them even articulate that fear as - when something goes wrong, it will just come back on me. There is an automatic assumption that by ‘indulging’ in work on giving people the opportunity to speak up, encouraging productive conflict and eliminating impression management people will somehow pull their noses away from the proverbial grindstone and stop delivering on their technical work. Worse, there is a notion that if control is relinquished by the leader to the group some form of chaos will ensue.

The truth is exactly the opposite. Psychological safety is about directly enhancing performance. Conversely to the belief above, taking the opportunity to build an open, honest working culture in a team takes the heat off the leader! When they find themselves working with a team who are spilling over with ideas, do the thinking and challenging collectively with and for them, flag up and deal with issues early and together, productivity increases, the team works in flow and quality is higher - a win win for everyone involved. The phrase, “A problem shared is a problem halved” is a cliche for a reason, it’s true.

Psychological safety is not the easy option, if you choose to see it that way, it means a shift in mindset and team behaviour. That shift, for those willing to take the step, reaps rewards for everyone on the team and way beyond. Something to not just think about, but do, as soon as you can.

Ffion Jones


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