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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 fro