Pop quiz: What is the single most important factor in determining team performance? 

Answer: Psychological Safety

Haven’t heard of it? You’re not alone. It’s gaining popularity in the corporate world – and for good reason. When we feel psychologically safe, we learn faster and solve problems better. It allows our collective creativity to flourish and creates a sense of belonging and fulfillment. It also prevents destructive conflict by stopping the escalating spiral caused by criticism and defensiveness – more on this later.

Psychological safety means that the members of a given group can ask questions, make mistakes, and challenge each other without fear of negative interpersonal consequences. 

How can we create psychological safety?

Much like trust, psychological safety must be built and tended-to within a given group. The leaders of the group will have the most power to both create and destroy psychological safety, but everyone in the group also has that power. 

Follow the P.H.E.W. method to create psychological safety:

Participate:

Everyone participates in group discussions and once an idea leaves your lips, it belongs to the group. This prevents defensiveness and ensures participants remain open to other views. Encourage participation by asking questions and thanking participants for their comments.

Humble Curiosity and Vulnerability:

Adapt an open, learning mindset, and share vulnerabilities with each other. At some point, members of the team will need to share work-related vulnerabilities (for example: “I made a mistake” or “I need help with this”). Each time a team member takes the interpersonal risk to share a vulnerability (work-related or not), they lower the risk for other team members to do likewise, making it more likely that they will share important work-related vulnerabilities when the time comes.

Encourage Basic, Bizarre, Contrasting:

Basic or “stupid” questions, bizarre and contrasting ideas are all encouraged in creating psychological safety. We are often reluctant to ask a question we think might be too basic, but those questions may be necessary and could catch a preventable mistake. Bizarre or crazy ideas don’t always work but voicing them out loud could trigger another idea that does. Contrasting or opposing views must be actively sought to find the most creative solutions.

When things go wrong, learn:

We sometimes hide our mistakes and failures for fear of being blamed or disparaged. When we do this, we are wasting a valuable learning opportunity. In the scientific method, we often learn more from our failures than we do our successes. This value is lost when we hide our failures.

How is psychological safety destroyed?

Anyone in the team or group can destroy psychological safety by blaming, demeaning, or using toxic tactics such as manipulation, passive-aggression, stonewalling, harsh criticism, and showing contempt. It is much easier to destroy psychological safety than to build it, so each team member should take care to avoid these behaviors.

How does psychological safety relate to conflict?

Psychological safety creates a positive conflict culture and prevents destructive interpersonal conflict. It creates an atmosphere that encourages diversity of views, openness to ideas, and a problem-solving mindset. It is the antithesis of criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. It allows participants to disagree intellectually while maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships. 

Speaking from my soap box:

While I recognize the benefits of learning the art of debate, I suggest that students of all ages could benefit as much or more from learning to have psychologically safe discussions about complex topics. Taking a side and arguing a point is a valuable skill. And so is listening to someone you disagree with without rancor or malice, focusing on finding a nuanced truth, and being open to ideas you contest. Where might our society go with widespread use of these skills?

By: Hannah Pilla, Conflict Coach & Mediator

References:
Edmondson, Amy C. The Fearless Organization. John Wiley & Sons, 2018.
Clark, Timothy. The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety. 1st ed. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2020.