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How psychological safety drives successful teams

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The first Rising Team Kit covers how to Grow Psychological Safety for teams. In this kit we focus on:

  • the definition of psychological safety, how it works, & why it matters for your team
  • how understanding team dynamics can build trust to underpin psychological safety
  • tips to continue growing an environment of psychological safety in your team

The most well known academic expert in psychological safety is Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School. She writes about the topic in her book, The Fearless Organization, and defines psychological safety as “An environment where people believe that candor is welcome.” She adds that it is a “team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” Others have described it as when people have a sense of confidence that they will not be embarrassed or punished for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.

Teams with high psychological safety perform better. Period.

In Google’s Project Aristotle they studied hundreds of teams globally to determine what makes effective teams. They found that the #1 most important factor for high-performing teams was psychological safety, which they define as “Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.” In fact, they found that high psychological safety was strongly correlated to everything from sales and revenue performance to ratings of team performance by leadership and customers, to faster development of innovative products, and adaptation to new market circumstances.

The science is clear on this across many sources. Amy Edmondson cites this data too, saying in her research that teams with high psychological safety have better teamwork, more innovation, higher creativity, more inclusion, and better error prevention.

It happens in stages.

While it’s clear that psychological safety is critical for high-performance teams, it’s also clear that you cannot build it overnight. Timothy Clark, the author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety suggests that it actually builds over 4 stages:

  • Stage 1: Inclusion Safety - when you feel safe to be yourself and feel accepted including all of your unique attributes; satisfies the human need to belong
  • Stage 2: Learner Safety - when you feel safe to learn by asking questions, experimenting, and giving and receiving feedback; satisfies the need to learn and grow
  • Stage 3: Contributor Safety - when you feel safe to use your skills and talents to contribute to the team; satisfies the need to make a difference
  • Stage 4: Challenger Safety - when you feel safe to question or challenge the status quo if you believe there is a chance to make improvements; satisfies the need to make things better.

The fact that psychological safety builds in stages over time is precisely why we start the Rising Team series with this theme. That exercise helps build trust among the team, and specifically builds towards Inclusion Safety as a place to start. In other kits some of our other themes and exercises will cover other aspects of these stages as well.

Your leadership style matters.

In a recent study by McKinsey & Company, their research found that a positive team climate—in which team members value one another’s contributions, care about one another’s well-being, and have input into how the team carries out its work—is the most important driver of a team’s psychological safety. Yet, they also found that only a small percentage of leaders demonstrate the behaviors to create a positive team climate.

McKinsey found that there are two types of leadership that are most highly correlated with creating a positive team climate that leads to psychological safety:

  • Consultative Leadership - When leaders consult their team members, solicit input, and consider the team’s views on issues that affect them.
  • Supportive Leadership - When leaders demonstrate concern and support for team members, not only as employees, but also as individuals.
  • A third type of leadership, Challenging Leadership, can also lead to higher levels of psychological safety, but only when done after a positive climate is in place. Challenging Leadership encourages employees to do more than they initially think they can by asking team members to rethink assumptions about their work and how it can be changed in order to exceed expectations and fulfill their potential.
  • And finally, Authoritative Leadership, a “command and control” style where leaders dictate what teams should do, is actively detrimental to psychological safety.

To sum it up, the McKinsey research found that the highest likelihood of achieving psychological safety happens when leaders first create a positive team climate through frequent supportive and consultative leadership, and then move on to challenging their team. The best way for leaders to create a positive team climate is through role modeling and reinforcing the behaviors they expect from the rest of their team.


What it looks like when it’s working

In teams that feel psychologically safe, team members feel comfortable to be themselves, actively learn new things, and raise questions, concerns, and new ideas when they believe things could be better.

When it’s working, teammates express mutual respect, trust, and care for each other as people. Team members don’t criticize each others’ motivation, competence or character, and people separate opinions and arguments from the character of the person who is expressing them. Psychologically safe teams are also more innovative and faster learning.

So now that we know why psychological safety is so valuable, it's now time to use Rising Team sessions to start building it!

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