TSLH #060: 5 Actions To Create Psychological Safety In Your Team

TSLH #060: 5 Actions To Create Psychological Safety In Your Team

Read time: 4 minutes


Psychological safety belongs to these words that every leader has heard or keeps hearing about. Most leaders understand that in order to have a high performing team, they must create psychological safety in their team.
Psychological safety is defined as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” This is the definition of Amy C. Edmonson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School.
The key question is often not what is needed to have a high performing team. But rather, it is how to create psychological safety in a team, especially if you are the new leader of that team. Frankly though, what I am telling you below can apply in any situation.
There are tons of things and steps you can implement to create psychological safety on your team. I’ll offer you 5 actions that I have seen consistenly done by the very best leaders I have learned from. Each of these 5 actions alone can already put you on the right path to high performance. If you excel at all 5, then, you will be close to leadership greatness!
Listen and ask for different perspectives. One of the most effective actions you can use to create psychological safety on your team is to show that you don’t have all the answers and you value the opinions of others, and for that matter of everyone on the team. When listening and asking for other perspectives, you show your team that although you are the leader and you will make the final decision, you need input from other people (the team) in order to nurture your thought process and make the right decision.
When you want to do that, just make it clear to your team that you want their feedback and make it also very clear that you don’t expect everyone to agree with you and that it’s OK to disagree. Explain that this is what you need.
Then, ask questions like:
  • “What am I missing?”
  • “Are there any other ways to do this more efficiently?”
  • “What are the things I am oversimplifying or underestimating here?”
  • “hat would happen if we go my way?”
Don’t forget to thank the team for their feedback. It does take courage to speak up in front of you, the leader. Don’t underestimate the effort needed.
The biggest challenge you will have when you want feedback from your team is that some people will speak up and pretty much steal the show from anyone else. That means there is a risk that you do not hear the dissent voices or all the different opinions. This could be because of several reasons: People are introverts and don’t speak up in meetings, they are afraid to voice their concern, they are from an underrepresented group, etc. As the leader, it is your responsibility to hear all the voices, not only the loudest.
Here are a couple of questions to ask to ensure you give a chance to everone to speak up in a safe space:
  • “That is one viewpoint we have heard. Let’s hear some dissent.”
  • Ask someone in the group to play devil’s advocate (even if they are not necessarily a dissent voice) and have the team discuss about the points raised.
Be vulnerable and express your own emotions. The best leaders I have worked with are able to be vulnerable, show emotions. By doing so, they show their human nature and invite the team members to do the same. This helps create psychological safety in the group.
Key here is to understand that as the leader, you need to control your emotions and you certainly want to make sure that the team members control their emotions too. You don’t want to have outbursts that will destroy psychological safety. Having emotions means that you recognize them and are able to express them in a way that is calm and feels safe for the team members.
Here are a few things you can say to show vulnerability:
  • “I felt disappointed by how we addressed that problem and showed up as a team. Can we discuss as a team about that?”
  • “I won’t be able to solve our problem alone. I need your help.”
  • “Thank you for the feedback. It hit me harder than I thought and I will need some time to think about it if you are OK with that.”
Have fun and laugh. You work 8 hours a day (at least), 5 days a week. That’s an awful lot of time spent with other people who are not family nor friends. You’d better make sure that you do have some fun and can laugh at times. Otherwise, things will feel miserable at work, for you the leader, and also for your team members.
Having fun and laughing at work can help create psychological safety because you show your team members that even dramatic situations can be turned into something we can laugh at – at least temporarily – and then find the energy from that laugh to address the problem.
Setting a humorous tone at the beginning of a meeting can help make the meeting more efficient. Laughing about unintended consequences of a small mistake with the rest of the group can diffuse the feeling of failure or disappointment or shame that someone on the team may feel because of a mistake they made.
Here are 2 examples that I used with my team, to give you an idea of what you can do here:
  • At each team meeting (this was our manager meeting, so myself and all my direct reports), we would start with a 15-minute fun activity. Every month, someone different would facilitate it. The goal was to have fun.
  • There was a time when someone on my team mistakenly erased a whole folder of Excel files we had, and suddenly we were without our much needed files to work. The person felt bad and started to want to apologize to everyone for their mistake. The group reacted by starting to launch small statements like “Thank you! now, we can all enjoy a long week-end!” and similar stuff that helped remove the stress and bad feeling out of the situation. Then, as a team, we found a way to recover what we needed.
Be very aware though that humor in one culture may sound inappropriate or insulting in another. When you’re unsure, ask! You can even ask in a fun way, just to lighten the atmosphere.
Be curious and listen for what is not said. I have said it several times in this newsletter: You will be a very efficient if you can listen not only with your ears, but also with your eyes and your own feelings, intuition, curiosity.
Putting these skills into use will create a lot of psychological safety. This is because you will recognize that what is not said is as important (if not more important sometimes) than what is said.
When someone in your team or in a meeting says something, look for clues for what is unsaid: Is someone having a body language that suggests resistance or refusal? Does someone raise their eyes thinking maybe “what a stupid idea” but not saying it? Are there emotions that you feel in the room that are not expressed? This is what you are looking for and want to see expressed, because when this happens, this gives all the voices of the team a chance to speak up and this helps create the sense that this is safe to speak.
A few things you can say or ask:
  • “I’d like to repeat what I have heard to make sure I have understood correctly what is being said.”
  • “Did I understand correctly that you said this or that?”
  • “It sounds like you’re saying that…”
  • “What makes you think that way?”
  • “It seems that this point is key for you. Is that right?”
  • “Is there anyone not sharing the same opinion? I am very curious to hear about different perspectives here.”
  • “I feel that you are [EMOTION]. What’s happening?”
  • “My intuition tells me that there are different opinions in the room about this. Can we hear them?”
  • “There seems to be a pink elephant in the room here. I’d be glad we address it as a team.”
Use failure for learnings. Failure or making a mistake is usually a traumatic event for anyone in a company. There is immediate fear of being judged, labeled incompetent, of the mistake being cascaded up to senior leadership. People may fear consequences for their jobs.
Your role as the leader of the team is to protect your team from these feelings and be clear about the fact that you will support people learning about mistakes and failure instead of judging and blaming. This is a key behavior you must demonstrate to create the needed trust in the team that will eventually lead to psychological safety. If people cannot trust that they can fail or make a mistake without adverse consequences, they will not be engaged and will refrain from collaborating.
The best model you can use to create psychological safety around failure and mistakes is to use that three-step template:
  1. Have a discussion with the team early on (if you are a new leader for the team, that means it must be one of your first actions) to explain that “we will experience failure and make mistakes as a team, and this is perfectly normal. I want to discuss how we want to behave when this happens.” and lead the discussion from there.
  2. When a mistake is made, admit it (especially if it’s from you, the leader) and don’t try to put the blame on anyone or anything. Just normalize that we’re all humans and we’ll make mistakes.
  3. Discuss what the team is learning from the mistake. Are there any gift or opportunity created by the mistake that can make a process better, the team better? What are the things that can be done to avoid a repeat of that same mistake in the future?
To do their best, your team members must feel safe, listened to, and supported by you – the leader – as well as the rest of the team. If you can get to that point, you will have created psychological safety. When that happens, take a step back and observe all the great things that you team is delivering because they feel safe and they are fully engaged.
I wish you a great read. I’ll see you next Saturday!
TL; DR (Too Long, Did not Read)
5 actions to create psychological safety in your team
  1. Listen and ask for different perspectives.
  2. Be vulnerable and express your own emotions.
  3. Have fun and laugh.
  4. Be curious and listen for what is not said.
  5. Use failure for learnings.

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