Increasing Psychological Safety at Work

by | Jan 23, 2018

In her 1999 study on workplace safety, Amy Edmondson defines Psychological Safety as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”

Edmondson relates Psychological Safety to team learning and team performance, especially under stress of change. Without feeling safe you cannot perform and succeed at work. Toxic ‘bro’ culture, for example, leads to unsafe and low performance workplace. (We addressed the virus of toxic ‘bro’ culture in US companies in an earlier post. Women in particular don’t seem to feel safe in many US companies, and for good reason.)

For 5 years, Google studied how teams can be more effective. Google’s Project Aristotle is an exceptional work that found psychological safety to be the most critical factor for team performance. Let’s examine what psychological safety is and what we all should be doing to ensure it’s present in the workplace.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is an integration of two relationships: intrapersonal and interpersonal. At the intrapersonal level team members need to feel safe both at a conscious and unconscious level. In transactional analysis language they need to feel ok. As team members they are being expanded into zones beyond their zone of comfort. They need to be comfortable with that from the point of view of their values and beliefs.

At the interpersonal level team members need to relate to others in the team. They need to feel they are OK. They need to feel empathy for one another and express empathy for one another. They need to be able to share their differences without discomfort to each other and be accepted.

In other words, teams need to be emotionally intelligent individually and collectively. The role of a facilitator in a team is to help the team function in an emotionally intelligent manner – this is crucial.

In one team interaction where I was the facilitator all went well while I was present. Because of a personal problem I needed to be away for half a day and two trained facilitators replaced me. What resulted was chaos. The team rebelled against these facilitators. Whatever the team achieved utill that period became worthless.

The team had accepted me as the leader to provide psychological safety. Those who substituted me did not fit that role for emotional reasons for that team. Without safety the team was dysfunctional.

Coach groups, not just individuals, to get improvements in psychological safety

Any leadership development coach worth his salt realizes with experience that what matters in an organization is teamwork, not lone ranger heroics. However much executive leader clients transform behaviorally as a result of coaching, back in the team environment that hasn’t changed its attitude, they either regress or quit because they can no longer align with their teams.

Individuals work in teams. Behavioral changes in individuals need to be aligned with changes in their teams as well. Companies who invest money in leadership development need to blend individual coaching with team coaching for optimal benefits.

Of 5 factors Project Aristotle discovered as team success parameters, psychological safety was the key determinant. Without psychological safety, teams did not form, norm or perform. Once people felt safe within the team they could open up to other factors such as dependability, structure & clarity, meaning of work, and impact of work affecting team performance.

Factors to increase psychological safety

Psychological studies list 13 factors that help provide workplace psychological safety. Of these, I would emphasize two.

  • Leadership: Team leader provides the safety for the team. A competent team leader will ensure that all physical, psychological and emotional factors to help establish safety are in place. Both consciously and unconsciously the team will look to this leader for its safety.
  • Emotional Engagement: Team leader emotionally bonds the team and helps the team operate as a seamless unit aligned to a common purpose. To make this happen the leader needs to be emotionally intelligent and know how to help the team be emotionally intelligent.

In today’s toxic bro culture I would necessarily need to add a third:

  • Safe and confident space for diverse people to be included.

Many companies pay lip service to diversity and inclusion by appointing a woman to run this department. They also have women running Human Resources function. Is it because these women report to toxic men that they cannot practice what would serve fellow women?

If you are part of the diverse, psychologically unsafe minority you may consider forming self-help groups that:

  • Engage interpersonally creating team safety
  • Align with the larger organizational objectives
  • Overcome internal barriers that hold you back. Coaching helps.
  • Raise your voice through media that are not controlled by the organization

If you are leading a company, irrespective of whether you feel all is well or not:

  • Appoint ombudsmen who are experienced leaders and coaches, who can heal as well as act to correct.
  • Initiate coaching to develop an inclusive culture that respects diversity and creates workplace safety.

Are you in one of these companies? How does it feel? What would you suggest your company do to make you feel safer?

If you cannot speak up, to paraphrase Amy Edmondson, you are not in a psychologically safe place, and according to Project Aristotle you are part of a non-performing team.

Ram Ramanathan
Ram Ramanathan

Ram

Ram is the Founder and a Principal at Coacharya. As the resident Master and mentor coach, Ram oversees and conducts all aspects of coaching and training services offered under the Coacharya banner.

Related Reading