How to reap the benefits of psychological safety? Sow the right seeds

Even though Amy Edmondson published her research into psychological safety over 20 years’ ago, it’s only now that the concept and it’s creator are having their ‘rock star’ moment. I can’t help but wonder if people are hooking onto psychological safety as an antidote to the constant deluge of negative stories we see everyday about organisations and government.

In 2017, an Australian research team examined 80 studies to find out what they tell us about psychological safety. They concluded the factors that help create psychologically safe work environments include:

  • Supportive leadership behaviours and organisational practices;
  • How teams are structured and work; and
  • The quality of relationships people have.

The researchers also highlighted five key benefits of having a psychologically safe environment which I’ve summarised in a sketchnote (see above). In this post, I’m going to dive a bit deeper into each of the benefits and hopefully, give you some ideas to sow the right seeds so you, too, can reap the benefits of a psychologically safe workplace.

Benefit 1: Improved communication, sharing of knowledge and levels of engagement

Words are noise. Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one powerful overarching idea: We are safe and connected. – Daniel Coyle, in The Culture Code

Review if hierarchy is being over-used and acting as a barrier

Research by Milisa Manojlovic, in 2018, found that hierarchy in hospitals can put nurses at a power disadvantage, with many afraid to speak the truth to doctors. During the study, exchanges between doctors and nurses were recorded. The recordings showed that nurses didn’t directly request what they wanted or express their needs. They communicated indirectly, which confused doctors, who then ignored the nurses’ requests and moved on to the next agenda item rather than ask for clarification.

Recognise and reward co-operation and helping

Mastery Motivational Climate is a concept, developed by John G Nicholls, that suggests success and failure are based around co-operation, helping, learning and effort.

In a survey of over 1,100 people across Norway, researchers examined perceptions of mastery, climate and trust. They found that knowledge sharing by individuals was driven to some degree by a perceived mastery motivational climate. This in turn was underpinned by feeling trusted by one’s manager. This aggregated up to a team level, where a mastery climate was a direct predictor of the collective team feeling trusted by the manager and therefore, meant the team was more prepared to share information and knowledge.

New team? Set the standards for communication early

Researcher led by Fred Zijlstra looked at how teams communicated in their early formation predicted how they’d communicate later on. The research examined 18 newly formed flight crews, analysing everything the crews said during pre-flight phase.  Zijlstra and his colleagues found that the types of communication that occurred early on predicted the types of communication occurring later for the team. The more constructive the communication early on, the better the performance. The study suggests that managers focus on training and development which establishes and reinforces strong early interactions.

Benefit 2: Openness to learning and learning from failure

If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive. – Cal Newport, in Deep Work

Ask questions that encourage reflection

In a study led by Giada di Stefano, volunteers were asked to take time to pause and reflect while trying to tackle a problem. The researchers found people were better at the task after being asked to take a moment to reflect on which strategies were working for them. This study was further replicated in a call-centre, where employees who took the time to pause and reflect did 23% better on a post-training test.

Compassion helps people to greet errors and failures with the open-mindedness and open-heartedness that foster learning – Monica Worline & Jane Dutton, in Awakening Compassion at Work

Get a balance of cool analysis and hot emotion when learning from failure

A 2018 study led by Noelle Nelson examined the positive role that negative emotions might play in helping people respond to and learn from failure. Across the three studies they conducted, the researchers found that participants exerted more effort on the follow-up tasks when they responded negatively emotionally and where the tasks were high in similarity to the first task. In one of the studies, they found that those with a more cognitive focus demonstrated self-protecting rather than self-improving behaviours.

Benefit 3: Improved performance, including creativity and innovation

Leadership style significantly determines employee creative behavior at work – Neeraj Jaiswal and Rajib Dhar, 2017

Be a servant leader, rather than a self-serving one

In a study involving over 700 people from across six companies in China, the researchers found leaders who exhibited self-serving behaviour had a negative impact on psychological safety. When competent leaders were perceived as not being self-serving, team psychological safety and subsequently team performance was enhanced. Whereas a 2017 study found, among other things, that a servant leadership style has a positive influence on levels of creativity.

Be mindful of mood

Research led by Matthew Grawitch examined the impact of mood on collaboration and creativity. Following an activity which helped set their mood, participants were divided into three groups: a good mood group, a bad mood group, and a neutral mood group. Those in the positive-mood group outperformed groups in the neutral- or negative-mood condition on a creative task. The researchers found that when people were in good moods there was more engagement and a greater likelihood to share and use knowledge. Therefore, it’s worth thinking about spending the first five minutes of a team meeting doing something that sets everyone mood to positive – such as getting everyone to share one piece of good news or positive feedback.

Benefit 4: Increase in positive employee attitudes, including levels of commitment

Most companies are filled with people who have no clue of the big picture – what the organization is really trying to accomplish – and because they don’t feel that they or their contributions are important, they do their job… and nothing more – Jason Jennings & Laurence Houghton, in It’s not the BIG that eat the SMALL, it’s the FAST that eat the SLOW

Give people the opportunity to shape their jobs

The concept of Job Crafting was developed by Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton. Job crafting is about how people can make changes in the tasks or relationship aspects of their work which can help them define the content and value of what they do (meaning) and who they are at work (identity). Types of crafting include:

  • Task crafting, such as altering the number of work tasks and/or ways to do them
  • Relational crafting, such as changes made to the level and types of interpersonal interactions at work
  • Cognitive crafting, such as changing how one views their job

In 2018, researchers conducted two studies examining the impact of using job crafting during tough times, such as when receiving a poor performance appraisal.  They found employee job crafting led to more positive feelings of job ownership and organisational commitment. In particular, they found the positive impact of job crafting was even greater for low performers and insecure job-holders developed a greater work attachment.

Benefit 5: Increased levels of initiative and problem solving

But if you really want to fuel intense action, the one-two punch of, first, creating ‘hot emotions’ about some problem, challenge or enemy and, second, steering all that passion to ‘cool’, or rational, solutions is the recipe for success. – Bob Sutton, in Good Boss, Bad Boss

Think carefully about the words you use

A 2019 study suggests that the language leaders use can determine whether employees will come back with follow-up ideas or not. The researchers found that people whose ideas have been rejected will still come back with more ideas if their manager responds constructively in the first instance. The study suggests that managers who demonstrate sensitivity and give well-explained reasons for rejecting an idea create an environment where people will keep coming up with ideas.

Be an autonomous leader, not a micromanager

In a meta-analysis of studies involving more than 30,000 employees worldwide, Gavin R Slemp and colleagues found an autonomy-supportive leadership style led to greater intrinsic motivation, workplace well-being, job satisfaction, committed and loyal employees, and higher work engagement. The study also suggests that leaders who exhibit such a style are less likely to have employees suffering from burnout.  According to the study, managers can do the following things to demonstrate an autonomy-supportive leadership style:

  1. Provide opportunities for employees to make their own choices and have inputs into decisions
  2. Encourage self-initiated behaviors within structured guidance and boundaries
  3. Show a genuine interest in the perspective of employees, demonstrating empathic concern
  4. Encourage ownership over goals, and interest and value in work tasks by clearly articulating a rationale about why those tasks are important
  5. Avoid the use of controls that restrain autonomy, like overtly controlling behavior (e.g. micro-management), or tangible sanctions or rewards to prompt desired job behaviors.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

I also have a monthly newsletter which is a compilation of blog posts, helpful research, and reviews of books and podcasts – all aimed at helping managers and leaders become more confident in handling a range of workplace issues. You can subscribe here -> SUBSCRIBE

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