Several years ago, I worked for an HR director (I’ll call her Susan) who loved to talk as much as she loved her job. Susan was passionate about solving problems and building interdepartmental relationships. She had a sense of humor and could connect with just about anyone. Here's the “but”: When Susan met with managers and employees during monthly team meetings, she did most of the talking. Anyone observing would describe these as a 90-minute, one-way conversation from Susan to whomever paid attention. Susan knew what was going on and didn’t like it. She wanted the team talking with each other in these team meetings, instead of her lecturing the group. Exasperated, Susan asked me how she could get people talking at these meetings. Unfortunately, I was only somewhat helpful. If at the time I had known about psychological safety, I’m sure I could have done more.
Silence and blank stares
Have you ever noticed that meeting participants withhold what they really believe? During employee interviews and focus groups that I conducted, executives to individual contributors often expressed this phenomenon to varying degrees. They made statements like the following:
- “When I was honest with my VP, he threw a fit! That was the last time I warned him about a cultural issue.”
- “I didn’t want to hurt my manager’s feelings, so I said, 'Everything is fine.'”
- “My manager would say, 'I want your honest feedback,' but the silent message was, 'not really.'”
- “As soon as I would voice a concern, my director would challenge everything I said. He was relentless and called these 'healthy talks.' I thought of them as taking a mental beating.”
- “Be honest with my boss? No, I don’t need the stress.”
Psychological safety and vulnerability-based trust
Rather than at the individual level, psychological safety occurs at the team level. Cognitively, team members believe that their questions, comments, and suggestions are received fairly and perceived as valuable, even when they don’t lead to an execution, task, or change. Behaviorally, when someone asks questions or expresses an opinion, the team inquires for clarification and understanding. This also can be observed as a debate but without the team trivializing a team member's argument.
Psychological safety is similar to Patrick Lencioni’s Vulnerability-based Trust (VBT). In "The Advantage", Lencioni explains that VBT is a quality found in healthy organizations. In addition, Lencioni contrasts VBT with predictive trust. When you predictively trust someone, you have confidence that the person is capable of completing a task. David Marquet calls this "Ability", as shown in his 1:37 minute video, "Don’t You Trust Me?".
Whether psychological safety or VBT, some researchers, such as Amy Edmondson, discovered the powerful results of psychological safety, which includes increasing team engagement.
Make psychological safety a priority
If you manage people or support managers of people, learn as much as you can about psychological safety. This includes encouraging managers to adopt behaviors that lead to psychological safety.
To help, you can access the following five online blogs. I’ve highlighted some of the authors’ key points.
1. Detjen: "Time to Rethink Managerial Training"
- Teams led by command-and-control managers behave passively. The manager does the thinking, and the team members fulfill the manager’s orders.
- Teams, including managers, need to shift to a team mindset. This mindset requires the team to voice the needs of stakeholders and the team itself. This helps teams to keep in mind a larger context when creating solutions or making decisions.
2. Hartnett: "How Psychological Safety Creates the Best Teams"
- According to Amy C. Edmondson, team members who worry about appearing incompetent or ignorant when expressing their views or asking questions are more likely to withhold their thoughts.
- Team members who worry about their appearance to the team may stifle their creativity and innovation as well as their ability to collaborate with other team members.
- Teams that shift from relying on the opinions of a few team members to collective creative thinking are more likely to thrive.
- Some corporate cultures (and Harnett includes human nature) may make maintaining an open and safe dialogue challenging.
- In some cultures, team members benefit more by saying nothing than speaking up. When managers reject their ideas and find ways to penalize them for speaking, team members keep their ideas to themselves.
- 3 out of 10 U.S. workers report that they strongly agree that their opinions count at work. Herway argues that when this changes to 6 out of 10, “organizations could realize a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents, and 12% increase in productivity.”
- To develop a sense of team purpose, Herway recommends four questions to ask teams:
- What can we count on each other for?
- What is our team's purpose?
- What is the reputation we aspire to have?
- What do we need to do differently to achieve that reputation and fulfill our purpose?
- The blog includes valuable references and links.
- Frazier et al. discovered that psychological safety has a strong link to information sharing, learning behaviors, role clarity, and peer support. Teams with high psychological safety might discuss mistakes, provide and receive feedback, and experiment with how they perform tasks.
- To cultivate a team environment of psychological safety, Hirsch recommends managers to:
- Ensure the team clearly understands everyone’s roles and responsibilities and how their own tasks contribute towards the team’s purpose.
- Model behaviors such as asking questions and being tolerant to mistakes. They need to model how to express curiosity as well.
- Encourage peers to support one another and value stability and rules.
5. Holzmer: "Innovation Is Essential"
- The best companies no longer encourage innovative individuals but support an innovative culture.
- Innovation is a collaborative process involving many people.
- To have an innovative culture, team members need to feel safe against ridicule or judgment when admitting mistakes and sharing unpopular views.
Call to action
Learning about psychological safety may encourage managers to change, but knowing may not be enough. Managers most likely need to:
- Practice behaviors that promote psychological safety
- Receive corrective and confirming feedback
- Receive ongoing support
You can accomplish this by providing workshops and coaching. Workshops can be a safe environment for managers to practice these behaviors and build their proficiency before working to change their team’s culture.
Promoting psychological safety is one of many ways to increase team engagement. In my next blog post, I’ll discuss growth mindset in contrast with a closed mindset. Like psychological safety, growth mindset is something many of us need to learn to positively affect team culture and engagement.
To learn more, check out my previous blog post that begs the question, “Should You Start with Team Building to Increase Engagement?”
Don’t drop the ball when it comes to engaging your employees. Start boosting engagement with Achievers eBook: "Engage or Die: How Companies That Act Fast on Engagement Outpace the Competition."
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