Why more managers need to understand psychological safety, what it is and how to create it

“…people are more likely to feel psychologically safe when they have trusting and supportive interpersonal relationships with colleagues” – William A Kahn

Much has been written in popular press and blogs about the importance of psychological safety. It’s a term that has been increasingly thrown around in the past couple of years. The rising interest in psychological safety comes off the back of research Google carried out in-house, exploring the characteristics of their highest performing teams.

Yet many managers I work with don’t know much about the detail of psychological safety – both in terms of what it specifically is but also how they can create it in their own teams. I hear the term thrown about in meetings and workshops but when I dig deeper there are big gaps in understanding.

I think psychological safety is crucial for managers (and practitioners) to understand, which is why it’s helpful that an Australian research team has taken the time to conduct an in-depth review. They define psychological safety as,

“…a shared belief amongst individuals as to whether it is safe to engage in interpersonal risk-taking in the workplace”

Or, as Adam Grant puts it, in his book Give and Take, psychological safety is,

“…the belief you can take a risk without being penalized or punished”

The research

The researchers from Deakin and Monash Business Schools, in Australia, conducted a systematic review of the literature. A total of 83 articles were included in the review, 78 of which were empirical.

The purpose of the research was to help organisations:

  1. Understand the factors that help create psychologically safe environments;
  2. Understand the benefits psychological safety brings;
  3. Understand the situations in which psychological safety is most influential; and
  4. Design environments that encourage psychological safety.

The findings

THE FACTORS THAT HELP CREATE PSYCHOLOGICALLY SAFE WORK ENVIRONMENTS

  1. Supportive leadership behaviours such as coaching, inclusiveness, trustworthiness, integrity and openness. Transformational, ethical, change-oriented and shared leadership styles were found to lend themselves to psychological safety more than others.
  2. Supportive organisational practices including access to mentoring and employee perception of diversity practices were seen as key.
  3. Relationships people have with each other, namely the extent to which people interact on an interpersonal level each day and how rewarding these relationships are. Familiarity between team members, as well as the quality of relationships between team members and with those outside the team were characteristics found to drive psychological safety.
  4. Team structure and ways of working including how reward and recognition is shared across the team and decision making approaches which enable collective responsibility. Autonomy was another characteristic although this was only found to be positive when project goals and processes were closely aligned with the wider organisation’s objectives.
  5. Team and individual status. This might be in terms of hierarchy but the research found this was also about reputation. For example, you might have a junior member of staff who is seen as a ‘high flier’ and therefore, they are awarded certain status which, in turn, gives them confidence to speak up and share ideas.

THE BENEFITS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY

  1. Better communication, sharing of knowledge and levels of engagement
  2. Openness to learning, including learning from failure.
  3. Improved performance, more creativity and innovation
  4. More positive employee attitudes, including more commitment to the organisation.
  5. Increased levels of initiative, such as identifying ways to work around processes that impact performance.

WHEN IS PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY MOST INFLUENTIAL?

  1. It can help moderate the impact in teams where there are differences in expertise; geographical spread; a big reliance on virtual technology to communicate; and/or where there is task conflict. Teams with high psychological safety, in these instances, are more likely to have better performance, creativity, innovation and learning than teams without.
  2. Psychological safety has more of an impact on learning and performance in complex, task-oriented organisations (e.g. hospitals, engineering) where creativity and sense-making are requirements.

Implications and solutions

One of the main critiques that researchers had of research to date was that there was no consensus on how psychological safety is measured. They suggest this might be an area for future research. There is also an issue as to whether psychological safety varies in different organisations and sectors and if so, to what extent.

Nonetheless, this in-depth review offers managers and practitioners a good foundation for understanding psychological safety, as well as identifying the things to work on in a team or organisation.

Here are five things you can do if you want to increase the psychological safety in your team or organisation:

  1. Evaluate and develop your leadership style. Ideally you should do this in partnership with a coach or mentor. Feedback can be gathered which explores the extent to which you display the characteristics which support psychological safety. Then you can build a development plan focused on helping you become a leader who builds psychologically safe environments. Remember, the one thing you have definite control of is you. So that’s a pretty good place to start.
  2. Review employee perception of current policies, processes and programmes. As the research found, organisations who were perceived by employees to have more supportive practices, such as mentoring and diversity programmes, were seen to be more psychologically safe. If you don’t already have some kind of employee perception survey then now is a really good opportunity for you to start one. Most medium to large organisations conduct surveys annually as a way to measure progress.
  3. Create opportunities for people to build and nurture relationships. This should be a mixture of the formal stuff (such as team-building) and informal stuff (such as a night out). Ideas from various organisations I’ve worked with include things like book clubs, international food days where people bring in dishes based on their cultural background, sports teams, network groups where people with common interests come together, action learning sets for people to help each other on work-related issues, or taking on a charity challenge. I did this latter one when I worked in an organisation. There was nothing like walking close to the edge of a mountain pass, literally, to help people bond with each other!
  4. Agree and define team ways of working. This is often where I find gaps when helping managers build stronger, more collaborative and cohesive teams. Without explicitly clear ways of working that everyone can point to, the danger is people will fill that vacuum with their own stuff. This doesn’t have to be complicated. One team I worked with co-created ’10 rules’ which was made in to a poster and put on the wall. It was also made into a little handout which was given to any new people joining the team and a key part of induction.
  5. Clarify each person’s role and the value they each add. If some people are seen as more important than others and hence, seen as having more status, then it’s unlikely those who see themselves as less important will feel psychologically safe. One thing you can do, as a manager, is clearly set out the valuable role each person plays in the team. There is always something you can find. For example, you might have a team member who sometimes struggles with their performance but who is brilliant at detail. By hooking in to that aspect of that person, you can not only help them feel valued (and therefore, safe) but also use that as a way to explore performance issues in a constructive way.

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Research reference:

Newman, A., Donohue, R. & Eva, N. (2017). Psychological safety: A systematic review of the literature. Human Resource Management Review, 27(3), 521-535.

 

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