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Building psychologically safe teams

Maybe you’ve been shut down for sharing a new idea in a meeting or felt too uncomfortable to raise your concerns to a leader. Whatever it is, I am sure all of us have had some experience in the workplace of feeling embarrassed, offended or too nervous to share our views or ideas. This all comes down to psychological safety, and if we don’t effectively facilitate it in our teams and wider organisations, we can jeopardise employee wellbeing, innovation, company culture and retention – key issues for all businesses.

Psychological safety is a belief that you will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking (source: Amy Edmondson).  In essence, it could be described as the absence of fear.

Psychological safety is essential for any work environment, especially where there’s complexity, uncertainty or tasks that require people to work together. It is a crucial ingredient when building or maintaining any inclusive, equitable and diverse culture and is a key contributor to people’s wellbeing and sense of belonging at work.

Both leaders and team members have a role to play in facilitating psychologically safe environments.  We can’t simply claim “it’s psychologically safe here” on behalf of the group, rather everyone in the team must genuinely believe the environment is safe for them to speak up and know that they will be respected and listened to. 

To help you navigate this important area, I thought I’d share some of the key things that both leaders and teams can (and should) do to facilitate psychological safety:

Tips for leaders to encourage psychological safety:

  • Create trust: spend quality time with your team members in one-on-one environments. Some people are more inclined to open up when settings are less formal and more personal.
  • Give permission: let your people know that you want them to question, challenge and suggest new ideas. Encourage healthy debate.
  • Ask questions: Support team members to share their input, giving them your full attention and listening with curiosity to see what you learn. Become a serial questioner and keep asking “why?”
  • Create a learning environment: frame tasks as learning processes rather than problem-solving exercises. Frequently ask your team: “what are we learning from this?”
  • Demonstrate vulnerability: just because you are a leader, doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers. Step back and allow your team to collaborate to find solutions.
  • Normalise failure: every mistake is an opportunity to learn something new. Let your team know that it’s ok if things don’t always turn out as planned, reframing failures as opportunities to move forward with increased knowledge.

Tips for team members to build psychological safety:

  • Create ways of working: agree on processes as a team to ensure everyone has a say on how they’ll give feedback, deal with conflict and make decisions.
  • Remove ego: let go of your need to look good or be right and focus on moving forward together as a team.
  • Speak honestly: share what you genuinely think, what you’re noticing and how you feel (versus what you think you should share).
  • Get comfortable with discomfort: it’s part of the process and means you’re learning, growing and coming up with better solutions.
  • Value difference: leverage the diversity in your team. Actively seek out the perspectives of people with different ideas and strengths to you.
  • Give feedback: acknowledge when someone’s contribution was valuable and recognise a teammate’s courage when they offer an alternative point of view.

These tips are taken from my Psychological Safety Capability Programme. This programme covers what psychological safety is and why it’s important, with practical models and suggestions to help support teams and organisations. We also bring our learnings to life with lots of reflection and open conversations that get to the heart of what needs to be done differently.  As always, my programmes are delivered in a fun and interactive way and can be tailored to your organisation and budget. 

If you’re keen to know more, please get in touch on robin@robindaviesconsulting.co.nz. I look forward to hearing from you!

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