Have you ever had an employee that didn’t seem to work well with their team members? Have you come across those project teams that seemed to be dysfunctional and worked against themselves more than for themselves?
All too often you’ll have lost employees, they’ve just left or worse still perhaps is they have remained and ‘underperformed’ or being problematic. Imagine if you didn’t need to face the constant threat of attrition, poor performance or interpersonal conflict within teams.
Imagine how much more productive, effective and engaged your staff would be if they understood each other, the organisation and had a voice.
What is Psychological Safety?
The term “Psychological Safety” refers to the concept of a working environment built on a foundation of interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves. Put simply, it’s a workplace where people feel safe to admit to a mistake, to point out a mistake someone else has made or speaking up at work without holding themselves back. To not feel the need to wear a mask or pretend to be someone or something they are not.
I’ve no doubt you’ve come across that person who had a work persona and a home persona. As soon as they stepped into the building, or picked up their phone, they would adopt a different personality. How did that make you feel when dealing with them? Did you feel connected with them? Could you trust them as much as someone else?
The concept helps us to understand the more primitive neurological response you have to a perceived threat — especially where that threat is a conflict with your boss, a coworker or a team member. The part of the brain that controls our ‘flight or fight’ response, the amygdala, is prone to turning of the tap of rational thought, shutting down perspective and our ability to analyse the situation.
When your brain perceives it to be in a situation of ‘Psychological danger’, it’s diverting energy away from the parts of the brain that you need the most to be creative, to be collaborative, to problem solve and to keep your composure. Not only are you less cognitively effective, but you can also end up less emotionally effective.
How Psychologically Safe is Your Workplace?
Consider for a moment the following questions. I’d like you to think about how they apply to your immediate team, your wider team (if that applies) and to your organisation generally.
- In team meetings, do people willingly speak up or ask about things they don’t know or understand? Or do people tend to stay quiet for fear of looking dumb or being embarrassed?
- If someone has reservations or concerns about a piece of work or project or a process, how likely are they to speak up about that in a meeting? Is it more likely that these issues are discussed in hallway conversations or one on one?
- Are people blamed for mistakes or close calls or are mistakes used as a learning opportunity?
- Is everyone in a team meeting invited to contribute or is it the most senior person(s) who drive the conversation?
- Are people encourage to make the best use their skills and knowledge or is it expected that people stay within the confines of their role unless they seek specific permission to venture beyond those boundaries?
- Do people ask each other or other teams for help at all?
- How readily will people voice a contrary opinion or disagree with a point of view in a team meeting?
It is these sorts of questions that can give you an insight into how Psychologically safe your workplace is. When team members feel confident they won’t be subjected to blame, ridicule, ostracisation or have their job or performance put at risk when actively seeking to learn or try something new.
The whole fear of failure thing that we all tend to feel can easily be compounded if your expectation is also that you’ll get in trouble in some form should you fail.
How Psychologically Safe Teams Foster Diversity
Google conducted a groundbreaking research exercise to understand what drove high performing teams. Project Aristotle found that there are 5 key elements to a high performing team. However, it was Psychological Safety which underpinned the rest. Dependability, Structure & Clarity, Meaning and Impact can not be achieved with a base that allows team members to feel safe to take risks and to be vulnerable in front of one another.
Imagine for a moment that you are different, or at least feel different from many of the people around you at work. It could be that you are from a different cultural background, perhaps English (assuming you work in an English speaking country) is not your first language. You may have a physical disability or indeed may have an invisible disability or difference.
Imagine that you’re in a team meeting where Psychological Safety has been established. How might you feel when it comes to speaking up or voicing an opinion in a team meeting? Not only may you have some reservations about how others may understand and respond to you because you’re ‘different’, but you’re also about to voice a potentially unpopular viewpoint.
What if the situation was where you’re likely to meet open resistance and rejection if you were to speak up?
When teams are able to support and encourage people to be themselves, without fear of persecution in any form, to accept people as they are and to value their contribution, then all team members will feel more included.
Many neurodiverse people can have a hard time with social anxiety, understanding other viewpoints and be quite direct and have firm views on a particular topic. Where there is an environment that supports them to be themselves in these situations and their ideas are judged and not themselves, the opportunity to leverage the cognitive diversity they bring can really be harnessed.
Additionally, psychologically safe workplaces enable and support employees to self-advocate for changes and adjustments that will allow them to be effective and comfortable at work.
Having the confidence and support to bring your whole self to work is what we all wish for (whether we’re prepared to admit it or not). Not having to pretend to be something else or hide, as many neurodiverse and other people do, allows for so much more mental energy to be spent creatively.
In order to maximise the cognitive diversity of a diverse workforce, to leverage the myriad strengths, experiences and perspectives your team members have, they can’t be caught in a fight or flight mental state every time they meet with colleagues, go to a team meeting or sit down for a performance conversation.
Improving Psychological Safety in Your Teams
Paul Sangata, the Head of Industry at Google has suggested the following steps in order to lift the level of Psychological Safety across teams:
- Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary.
To head off the flight or fight response, try leading conflict with a question like “How could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?”
2. Speak human to human.
Where contention or conflict arises, Sangata lead his teams through an exercise that reflects on the other parties perspective.
- This person has beliefs, perspectives, and opinions, just like me.
- This person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like me.
- This person has friends, family, and perhaps children who love them, just like me.
- This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me.
- This person wishes for peace, joy, and happiness, just like me.
3. Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves.
Planning interactions, especially where the reaction of the other person or persons is unknown can be a very helpful tactic. At times, for some people, this might be an exercise done in pairs or a group — not everyone has the same insights into how others may think or feel.
Start by asking the following questions:
- What are my main points?
- What are three ways my listeners are likely to respond?
- How will I respond to each of those scenarios?
4. Replace blame with curiosity.
Blame and criticism increase the level of conflict. They are escalators of emotional state and will derail you in creating greater team cohesion. Instead, try the following approaches:
- State the problematic behaviour or outcome as an observation, and use factual, neutral language. For example, “In the past two months, there’s been a noticeable drop in your participation during meetings and progress appears to be slowing on your project.”
- Engage them in exploration. For example, “I imagine there are multiple factors at play. Perhaps we could uncover what they are together?”
- Ask for solutions. The people who are responsible for creating a problem often hold the keys to solving it. That’s why a positive outcome typically depends on their input and buy-in. Ask directly, “What do you think needs to happen here?” Or, “What would be your ideal scenario?” Another question leading to solutions is: “How could I support you?”
5. Ask for feedback on delivery.
Asking for feedback on how you delivered your message can help release any tension in a conversation and help shine a light on areas for improvement. Sangata recommends closing difficult conversations with questions such as:
- What worked and what didn’t work in my delivery?
- How did it feel to hear this message?
- How could I have presented it more effectively?
6. Measure psychological safety.
Keeping an eye on how your level of psychological safety stacks up and tracking changes over time will help to both improve but to embed the practices in your business. As the old axiom says “what gets measured, gets done”.
Work environments that allow and support people to be themselves and encourage a culture of acceptance enable high performing teams to form and flourish.
The actions needed to create psychologically safe workplaces will also create space for increased inclusion and understanding of people who are different or from different backgrounds.
Psychologically safe environments are more able to also support neurodiverse employees and allow them to share their insights and strengths more effectively with their teams.
With six essential steps to develop greater psychological safety in teams and inclusive workplaces there are likely a number of things you could start off with immediately.
What’s your current level of psychological safety now? What’s your next best action to improve it?
To learn more about the advantages of Neurodiversity inclusion and how Neuro Advantage can help you please see — www.neuroadvantage.com.au/awareness-training