Psychological safety first: building trust among teams

Employees can benefit from being vulnerable at work, and that comes with knowing it’s OK to take risks and sometimes fail

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Image Credit: Robert Samuel Hanson

How many times have you heard that there’s no room for emotions in the workplace, only clear, decisive action? While it used to be taboo to talk about feelings at work—and in many cases it still is—experts believe that there is a lot to gain from expressing emotions. In fact, not talking about feelings (like doubts and worries) can be downright detrimental to a business.

Researchers Hemant Kakkar and Subra Tangirala note that even people who may be naturally more inclined to raise ideas and offer suggestions may not do so if they fear being put down or punished. “On the flip side, encouraging and rewarding speaking up can help more people do so, even if their personality makes them more risk-averse,” they write.

It might be that employees don’t believe that their opinions matter or that their contributions may be restricted by workplace hierarchies. Front-line managers need to be extra conscientious of employees’ feelings and fears and recognize how these emotions affect motivation and workers’ ability to do their job.

That’s where psychological safety comes in.

Creating a safe space for employees takes work, but fortunately, it doesn’t require a lot of expensive training—just care and consistency.

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What is psychological safety, and how does it help your team?

Psychological safety is a shared feeling that it’s OK to be open and honest in a group setting. Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor who coined the term, describes a psychologically safe workplace culture as “one where people are not full of fear, and not trying to cover their tracks to avoid being embarrassed or pushed.” In other words, the act of speaking up and learning from mistakes is encouraged, even celebrated.

It’s important for leaders to realize, however, that psychological safety isn’t the result of being nice. Quite the opposite, actually. Edmondson says that it’s dependent on there being a certain level of healthy conflict in the workplace. “Psychological safety is about candor, about making it possible for productive disagreement and free exchange of ideas,” she writes in an article for Quartz.

This is something Jake Herway, senior managing adviser at research firm Gallup, can attest to. Herway describes working with an organization that reached a standstill in the middle of an important transition. “It was clear to me that no one in the department felt safe defending or actively pursuing a new idea, an opinion, or a criticism,” he writes. “The environment wasn’t negative … but it was unproductive once real work began.”

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When managers and employees inauthentically support each others’ ideas in the name of being polite, they miss out on an opportunity to communicate with and learn from each other. Overly kind statements (especially ones that are incorrect, vague, or directed at the wrong person) actually lead to what Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, calls “ruinous empathy.” This type of behavior, one that values politeness over progress, may make employees feel good in the short term, but it doesn’t help anyone grow or improve.

Employees who feel engaged and empowered to take action, on the other hand, know that their voices are being heard and that their opinions are valued (and challenged) by the team, which can have a hugely positive impact on a team’s ability to innovate.

How to create psychological safety at work

Saying you encourage your teams to speak up and take risks is one thing, but actually creating a culture of trust is another. This is especially true when you consider how quickly psychological safety can be derailed. One impulsive retort can bring the entire team down.

Ultimately, the manager’s interactions with the group will determine whether team members feel safe airing opinions and concerns. Employees want to work with leaders who see themselves as part of the team and whom they trust to be transparent.

4 ways managers and team leaders can improve psychological safety

  1. Admit you’re wrong. By demonstrating vulnerability and directness, you can show employees that it’s OK to make mistakes (and to acknowledge them with the wider team). In Edmondson’s opinion, it’s even effective for leaders to apologize for not facilitating trust and safety in the past.
  2. Ask for the team’s input. Researchers Alison Reynolds and David Lewis say that hierarchical behavior can stifle experimentation because it puts the onus on an individual, rather than an entire team. By asking employees for their opinions in group settings, they will not only feel more involved and accountable but also empowered to innovate.
  3. Respond positively to questions and doubts. Gallup found that only 30% of U.S. employees think their opinions matter at work. And it’s not just strategic ideas that need to be acknowledged. Managers should show appreciation when employees speak up about unrealistic timelines or ask for clarification on a project. Thank them for voicing their concerns, and then help them decide on next steps.
  4. Forgive employees’ mistakes. Nothing kills psychological safety quicker than a negative reaction to an error. Instead, focus on the positives: A mistake was caught, it can be fixed, and there’s something to learn from the experience. Above all, a psychologically safe environment protects employees from the fear of being wrong.

For Karlyn Borysenko, organizational psychologist and author of Zen Your Work: Create Your Ideal Work Experience Through Mindful Self-Mastery, it all comes down to letting yourself be vulnerable.

“The very best way to get started is by being the role model for your team in regard to what psychological safety looks like,” she writes in an article for Forbes. “And the truth is that if you don’t learn to do these things for yourself, no amount of team-building activities will help you get where you want to be.”

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Let’s talk about trust

Similar to Edmondson’s view on the differences between psychological safety and kindness, leaders must also remember that there is a clear distinction between psychological safety and trust. The two concepts are related, but not interchangeable. Rather, trust between colleagues and their leaders contributes to this safety, and vice versa.

A psychologically safe work environment establishes a constant, collaborative state that’s stable despite fluctuations in pace or workload. And when teams feel safe, they’ll be more empowered to face challenges. Your org chart is full of potential—you just need to give your people a safe space to reach it.

3 team-building activities to improve psychological safety

1. Play a game of “Just Like Me” to practice empathy

Developed by Paul Santagata, head of industry at Google, this team-building activity requires that employees recite statements, followed by the phrase “just like me” (e.g., “This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me”). This allows employees to show support and empathy for one another, which are both needed to increase psychological safety at work.

2. Host an “anxiety party” to practice vulnerability

Ask your employees to write down their biggest anxieties like the team at Google Ventures did and then have everyone rank their concerns in order from most to least worrisome. When that’s done, ask them to share the list with their teammates, who can provide feedback and perspective. This helps teams to practice honesty, encourages them to acknowledge their own insecurities, and even find alignment on how to move forward with projects or learn which ones need to be prioritized over others.

3. Make flashcards to practice speaking up

Tom Carmazzi, CEO of manufacturing corporation Tuthill, uses index cards to create a safe space in his meeting rooms. Have employees write down their thoughts about the topic at hand on 3-by-5-inch cards.using Provide big, bold pens so comments are brief, and then stick the cards to the wall. This gives everyone a chance to share their opinions and goals, and sets the stage for coworkers to ask “clarifying, non-leading questions” for more insight.

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