Psychological Safety: Melting Barriers for Creative (and Thriving!) Teams

Have you watched the show Silicon Valley? If not, let me paint you a picture of working at Hooli, a fictional (based on a real) tech giant’s office. There are pods where employees can sleep during their all-nighters. There are big whiteboards for them to scribble code onto. But, there is also antagonising behaviour rife within the workplace. A line of missing code sparks ridicule, teasing and name calling. It is a workplace where people get fired for speaking their minds and pointing out mistakes higher ups make. It is not a safe environment to be a maverick, independent thinker, or human who makes mistakes.

This is a psychologically unsafe work environment.

What is psychological safety?

In the words of Amy Edmondson, a leading expert on the subject, it is “the belief or expectation that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”. Put simply, it is not the swanky pods-and-boards equipped offices of Hooli. In fact, it is where teams feel safe to take risks and make mistakes, because they aren’t made out to be duds, just people who are innovating and learning.

The best example of a large corporation pushing for psychological safety in its offices is Google and its project, Aristotle.

A New York Times article on Google highlighted the case study of a woman from Yale Business School who joined a study group where she constantly felt she had to prove herself. She quit and moved on to another group, which had good intra-team rapport, encouraged creativity, and ultimately, went on to win a business competition at Yale University.

Google’s in-depth research into team dynamics has thrown up some compelling results. To paraphrase, a group with the right norms and policies (such as encouraging sharing and speaking up) boosts the collective creativity and intelligence of the team, while wrong norms and policies can cripple the team regardless of how smart or capable its members are. A team which cares for its members’ mental wellbeing is the team that thrives.

Laura Delizonna makes an interesting observation in Harvard Business Review. According to her, when a boss, a competitive colleague, or a dismissive junior provokes us, this rings alarm bells in our head (more accurately known as the amygdala), hijacks our higher brain centres, and ignites our fight-or-flight responses. That’s exactly how we react in a life-or-death situation. But psychologically safe environments avoid putting us in such situations and make us more “open-minded, resilient, motivated and persistent”. Clearly, it’s not just mental. It’s physical.

Psychologically Unsafe = Psychologically Unwell

Cultivating psychological safety

How can you cultivate psychological safety? The easiest, quickest, and surely effective thing to do is ask. Ask your team members if they feel they can speak their mind without fear of backlash, and if they are comfortable being who they are in the workplace.

  • Truly listen to your team members: You need all the voices in the room to speak up (yes, especially the millennial interns!).
  • Be genuinely curious: ask questions to show you are interested, and want to understand their perspectives, points and mistakes.
  • Share your stories: Lead by example, laugh at yourself, your glories and your goof-ups.
  • Allow culture into the room: diversity of perspective can only be leveraged if we allow them to surface with safety.
  • Be human: Let others see your learning curve, your uncertainty, and your emotions.

What lies at the base of psychological safety is intra-team relationships. Humanization is often underrated, but it is powerful — it makes you relatable, shows you care, and helps the team perform better.

A psychologically safe workplace enables teams to perform extraordinary results, as well as share on occasional, an unguarded laugh. With 2020 now behind us, there couldn’t be a better time for to share, connect, and be human together.

A talent management strategist, board advisor and executive coach to CEO’s, specialised in Diversity and Inclusion