How The Best Leaders Make Their Team Feel Safe, and Reap The Rewards

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Paul Santagata, Google’s Head of Industry once said that “there’s no team without trust,” and this is exactly what we’re trying to nail down today. While every organisation runs a little bit differently, the one thing in common is that the actions of high-level companies are made possible by the people working in the background, and if they don’t have the psychological safety in place to voice concerns, new ideas or ways to solve problems, your organisation is severely lacking. 

When an organisation invests the time and effort into creating a culture of psychological safety, everyone benefits- there are no losers in this equation. 

I’m sure everyone’s had some degree of experience with this concept, more than likely originating in a meeting that perhaps you weren’t a high-ranking member of. I know at least personally, I’ve bitten my tongue and held back on something I thought would be valuable, in the fear of the potential negative response. Now that I’ve had decades to mature, I wish I spoke up; they were damn good ideas! 

Now, before we jump into the theoretical background, let’s address the topic of culture. Trying to make your workplace a more psychologically-safe environment simply isn’t possible if the leadership team doesn’t see the value in changing an organisation’s culture. People, after all, can be creatures of habit, and stubborn ones at that, so there needs to be a discussion with the leadership team to get more executive buying-in to the concept as a whole. 

As you’ll soon discover, it’s a tool not only recognised, but actively practiced in some of the world’s largest and most innovative companies. 

As a brief history lesson, psychological safety is a concept that Amy Edmondson, a professor at the Harvard Business School penned back in 1999, as she explored the common traits of high-level organisations and the culture that underpinned their success. Professor Edmonson identified one overarching trait that she believed was responsible for their productivity and engagement in the workforce. 

That trait was psychological safety, and it was exhibited by those that felt safe in offering up and receiving critical feedback, openly learnt from others, and ones that were quick to take responsibility and admit their mistakes. She writes that “psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” This ability to be completely candid is something, I believe, is undervalued in modern business. 

Time and again, I see meetings devolve with personal conflicts, egotistical leaders and an unwelcoming company culture when it comes to talking about weaknesses and taking personal responsibility when things go wrong. People are too quick to judge, and as a result of this, others are reluctant to be honest and transparent when something didn’t go as planned, or they failed to meet a target. Deflection is a commonly-used tool, as are personal attacks on other members of the team. It’s a real shame 

Google Case Study

The concept was taken up by technology giant, Google, who experimented with a number of ways to assemble the most productive, cohesive teams possible for their high-level projects. Google writes that “psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe from risk-taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.” 

It would come as no surprise then, that Google is using psychological safety as the bedrock of its collaborative process recipe, alongside things like dependability, structure and clarity, meaning and impact; all of which contribute to an employee’s sense of purpose, productivity and safety in the workplace to put forward new, potentially risky ideas. Google’s aforementioned Head of Industry, Paul Santagata said that “in Google’s fast-paced, highly demanding environment, our success hinges on the ability to take risks and be vulnerable in front of peers.”  

Psychological safety can be summed up with the phrase “if I make a mistake on our team, it is not held against me.” 

Dependability is “when my teammates say they’ll do something, they follow through with it.” 

Structure & Clarity are encapsulated by “our team has an effective decision-making process.” 

Meaning relates to “the work I do for our team is meaningful to me.” 

Impact refers to an employee’s ability to “understand how our team’s work contributes to the organisation’s goals.” 

Tips to Foster Psychological Safety

It’s important to first and foremost lead by example, and ensure that the management team does the same. Anyone in a leadership position should remain open to conversations, and encourage members of the team to voice their questions and concerns. They should also be quick to admit their mistakes; this is crucial to the process as a whole. If your team sees their manager admitting fault, they’re likely to do the same. The first step toward a psychologically-safe environment is one made by the executive team. 

Next, you should increase everyone’s active listening skills to ensure your meetings are pointed and focussed, and people can voice their opinions and be assured they’ll be listened to. Implement a no-phone rule during key conversations, and encourage your team to ask more questions of each other. Ask the quiet members of your team some questions, even if it’s not necessarily their speciality. 

Now, perhaps the most important part of this process is to create a safe working environment that helps employees become open and transparent. Establishing a set of rules can provide you some of the building blocks you need to create this culture. Things like no interruptions, ideas aren’t judged and no blame is placed, and left-field ideas are listened to, and even encouraged. 

Finally, you need to create an open mindset, that eliminates the negativity of personal prejudice and judgement while working in a team. In your meetings or collaborative group projects, you should get your teams to share feedback so they get better at receiving critical feedback as a positive thing, rather than a personal attack. 

Too often, egos get in the way of progress; don’t forget that. 

Without these fundamental concepts, it’s unlikely that your team is optimally set up to be successful in their roles, and without psychological safety underpinning the whole concept, the rest would seem impossible. If it’s been useful for a company the size and complexity of Google’s, then why not consider making your workplace a more psychologically-safe workplace and reap the rewards. 

Thank you, as always for your time. 

I’ll see you in the next piece.

Kobi Simmat, Director & CEO of the Best Practice Group. 

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