Psychological safety – it’s a team sport

Psychological safety is a term that we are hearing more and more about.

It’s one of those concepts that, even if we haven’t heard of it in these terms, we have all definitely experienced and, more disappointingly, have probably experienced a lack of.

For the sake of completeness, it’s worth including a definition from the authority on the topic, Professor Amy Edmondson:

“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”.

A sense of psychological safety – or a lack of it – will have an impact on not only our performance and mental health at work, but also in our personal lives.

We are all increasingly aware, particularly with the increase in remote working, that the barrier between those two key elements of our lives is becoming increasingly porous unless we take deliberate steps to prevent it and protect our own mental space.

Perhaps even more useful than a definition is an understanding of what it feels like and what impact it has – the relatable chart in the image from Amy Edmondson paints a really clear picture and something that can be used as a basic diagnostic tool and start point if we are seeking to change things. 

But whether we are a CEO, a manager or a team member, we can rarely take those steps alone; our nature as human beings means that we are susceptible to the thoughts, words and actions of others.

So, the obvious question is: how do we get ourselves and our team to the top right-hand box of the chart from where we are now?

When we reflect on environments that have psychological safety in their nature, we might conclude that this is often coincidental; that it is simply down to the character, empathy and leadership skills of the person setting the tone.

But, just like trust, this can disappear quite quickly; this could be as simple and common as the replacement of a leader in a critical and influential position.

This can result in – as reported in the MOD report – pockets of good practice, which will have a positive but probably limited impact.

At an organisational level, unless we set out to deliberately educate, inform and encourage the development of psychological safety by adopting a systems approach that recognises the requirement for shared responsibility.

Case Study – UK Ministry of Defence in collaboration with PA Consulting

The Ministry of Defence, in collaboration with PA Consulting, recently released a report on a joint study on Psychological Safety in Major Programmes.

The report makes some excellent observations. I would highlight the following:

  • Psychological safety vital for individual wellbeing and perceptions of team performance.
  • The strategic environment directly influences the team level. Project leaders who are operating in an environment where they do not feel psychologically safe are unlikely to perform at their best or to be able to get the best from their teams.
  • Some project leaders are managing to create psychologically safe conditions for their teams but are likely to be achieving this through an absorption of pressure.
  • This approach is unlikely to be sustainable, particularly in light of the strong links between psychological safety and wellbeing.
  • Defence has a role to play to enable the right culture by breaking down bureaucratic barriers and unite projects under a common vision, rather than setting them up to fight for limited resource.
  • Taking and managing risks is an essential part of high performing teams and a reluctance to do so will hamper innovation and creativity.
  • Small teams have some psychological safety and trust… but poor organisational safety and trust dissolves and undermines it.

In a world where we are all required to work innovatively and effectively, the MOD and PA Consulting have evidence-based findings to convince even the most hardened sceptic that this is not about indulging employees but about setting everyone up for success.

I would go on to add that developing a shared responsibility to this and wider mental wellbeing is critical to have genuine long-term impact on wellbeing and performance.

The MOD / PA report goes on to give concrete advice on how to develop psychological safety in an organisational environment, specifically the Major Projects domain where a lack of it can be commercially and operationally debilitating.

The report recommends actions such as:

  • Initiate engagements with your team to discuss progress: proactively create the environment where individuals have the opportunity and feel comfortable to raise issues and concerns.
  • Be available to the team: ensure your team knows that you are available and open for consultation when needed by them.
  • Provide an ongoing presence: project leaders should be ever-present in the project environment, providing a constant route for conversation and escalation.

All of this is absolutely spot on, but our experience tells us that even when we give people steps to build psychological safety, it isn’t always as easy as we’d like, particularly if there is a real or perceived lack of psychological safety to begin with.

The paradox is that for that to happen requires either an existing level of psychological safety or a readiness to take a risk; often this requires the leader or a courageous team member to go first.

But by encouraging people to open up about their experiences, insights and shortcomings – from either their personal or professional lives – we can make those steps more achievable and longer-lasting.

As Amy Edmondson herself writes:

“If you change the nature and quality of the conversations in your team, your outcomes will improve exponentially. Psychological safety is the core component to unlock this.”

It’s hard to avoid developing psychological safety when you’re talking about mental health in an honest and open way. But there’s no short-cut; like trust, developing psychological safety takes time and is most effectively done in an incremental way.

But it’s a team sport.

The nature of the concept means that no one person can change things for the better. It’s a shared responsibility between the organisational senior leadership, team leaders and team members to genuinely have impact. If any one of these elements is disengaged, progress is likely to be slow if at all.

In difficult times, I’ll leave you with some inspirational advice from the past.

Thinking back to the Great Depression, a time with some resonance today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt picked up on the need for shared responsibility for collective resilience in the face of national adversity:

“If I read the temper of our people correctly,” Roosevelt said in his first inaugural speech, “we now realise as we have never realised before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective.”

So, this reinforces the fact all of this is definitely a team sport and requires an incentive for everyone to get on board. Some team members will care about performance but – if we’re honest with ourselves – some won’t.

The one thing that everyone does care about is their mental health – how they are thinking, feeling and behaving and how that is effected by their work environment.

Counterintuitively, by giving teams the resources, structure and confidence to start with the difficult topics first, maybe we give ourselves the best opportunity of getting to the top right of that chart.

If you would like to learn how you can develop psychological safety in your organisation, please get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

Written by: Olly Church, Co-Founder

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