Imagine leading a team where team members don’t ask for help or clarification when they are stuck on a task, or raise legitimate concerns, report mistakes, or voice their ideas. all due to the fear of being criticized, ridiculed and punished by others.
This fear is prevalent because of the lack of psychological safety, and if sustained, could be highly detrimental to the company in terms of employee engagement, team and individual learning, creativity, innovation, and productivity.
Read this blog post to learn more about the importance of psychological safety.
But, the main question remains – how does one build a high level of psychological safety within a team?
Research tells us that managers play a particularly critical role in encouraging new ideas, speaking up and learning behaviour in their teams. So, Amy Edmondson, the researcher who coined the term psychological safety, introduced a toolkit for managers which is composed of three steps: 1) setting the stage, 2) inviting participation, 3) responding productively.
Let’s go through each of them one by one.
There are two components to successfully set the stage for the members of the team. The first requires managers to make framing statements. These are statements the manager makes to address concerns employees may have even before the work has begun, especially if the type of work being done is not consistent and it involves uncertainty (i.e. creative work, research). In these statements, the manager should make it clear that the first try won’t be perfect and that the team members are not expected to get it right without any failures. By encouraging the trial-and-error process, managers teach employees not to give up after the initial failures, thus promoting greater learning behaviour as opposed to a fear of failure.
The second step to set the stage involves making clear that interpersonally risky behaviours such as reporting the mistakes, asking questions, and giving feedback are welcomed and that individuals will not be punished in any way for these behaviours. For example, if the manager mentions what level of uncertainty the work encompasses, individuals will be more comfortable speaking up and giving honest feedback and constructive criticism. Another great practice is to remind people of the interdependent nature of the tasks individuals are working on, and that they should reach out to ask for help when needed.
Team members struggle to speak up and share their opinions when their manager seems to know the answer to every question. As a manager, signaling vulnerability and revealing their own shortcomings creates a place where team members feel encouraged to participate in the conversation and provide their insights. Managers can also invite increased participation by asking questions and inquiring for more information about the topic or issue. By demonstrating curiosity, individuals feel like their opinions matter which makes them more likely to speak up and raise their concerns or provide their opinions in the future.
There are also several practices managers can implement in their teams to receive more input from team members such as scheduling regular focus group meetings and employee-to-employee designs where individuals mentor each other on variety of skills.
The last tool on Amy Edmondson’s toolkit addresses how managers can foster psychological safety culture in their team by responding positively. When an employee provides an opinion about a topic, the initial reaction from a manager becomes critical for building psychological safety. If the manager acknowledges and appreciates this behavior, this implies that anyone who engages in a similar behaviour (e.g. raising a concern or offering an opinion) will not be humiliated or criticized.
When responding to a failure, managers can gather individuals impacted by this mistake and invite them to share their perspectives and opinions on the situation. The success of this practice depends on whether the participants attempt to listen and understand each other. If the people feel like they are not shamed and criticized by admitting the mistakes or how these failures influence them and their work, there is a high chance that they will keep admitting their mistakes and learn from them.
In conclusion, managers play a critical role in cultivating a team culture whereby employees can share their thoughts and feelings without the fear of repercussions. This three-step toolkit is a first step for managers who want to start raising the level of their team’s psychological safety, one of the key ingredients for a successful team.