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How to create and promote Psychological Safety at work
Or how to destroy the invisible silence
My previous article introduces the concept of psychological safety and its benefits. Less than a week after that article was published, Adam Grant, organizational psychologist, and professor at Wharton Business School writes:
Seeing such world-class leadership expert (and one of my favorite authors) talk about psychological safety validates the timeliness of this conversation and reaffirms that psychological safety is paramount in any healthy organization!
“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes”. - Amy Edmonson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School
In the first article of the mini-series, I share the story of how I learned about psychological safety. I also talk about how, sadly, I took it for granted until I found myself in an environment where it was not a priority. I experienced firsthand the benefits of a psychologically safe environment, feeling at my best and like my career was thriving and I want everybody to experience that. To get familiarized with the concept of psychological safety, I recommend starting here.
My experience made me wonder: If psychological safety is so important, how do we create it? Are leaders solely responsible? And is it a one-and-done process?
Creating psychological safety can’t be a bottoms-up process. Employees cannot implement this type of change on their own, especially in an already unsafe environment. But they can support their leaders in doing so.
In this article, we will focus on what each of us can do to help create a psychologically safe work environment. We will start by discussing how leaders (perhaps you are a leader reading this now) can implement psychological safety in their organizations. Then, we will explore how everyone from individual contributors to executives can champion psychological safety and impact their workplace culture.
What leaders can do to foster psychological safety
This section covers what you, as a leader, can do to facilitate and legitimize psychological safety in the workplace. Your team needs you to advocate on their behalf, so it's a lot of responsibility, but without you, this change isn’t possible.
We’ll discuss ways in which you can make your organization more psychologically safe by reframing challenges as learning opportunities, how you can lead by example and normalize vulnerability, opening multiple channels of communication to give your team a voice, and more.
Model the behavior you want to see
Whether you’re in a senior or leadership position, one thing is certain: people look up to you. They learn how to behave and operate in their role by observing you. If you don't promote psychological safety in the workplace, neither will they.
When leaders practice what they preach, they set a precedent that has ripple effects throughout the entire organization. It becomes a tree of influence and each of us has one. What positive changes can trickle down from us?
Research has shown that vulnerability doesn’t decrease the trust others have in you. In fact, it’s quite the opposite! By showing vulnerability, people tend to trust you more and feel more psychologically secure.
For leaders, it's important to model and normalize vulnerability. When you make a mistake or an incorrect assumption, own it. Admit that you don’t have all the answers and ask for feedback: “Am I missing something? I want to hear from you”. Best ideas come from those working in the trenches. Make people more invested by involving them in the decision-making process. By inviting criticism, you show you're not perfect; and encourage individuals to share ideas without fear of ridicule or shame.
Implement psychological safety at the organizational level
Any type of cultural change within an existing organization is hard, but not impossible. Leaders can catalyze this shift in perception and set the stage for the team by making psychological safety a legitimate cultural norm. Good opportunities are all-hands meetings, team meetings, or even in 1:1s.
The message that needs to be communicated can be something along the lines of: “We're taking bets here and hoping we'll get it right. We might fail, who knows? What we do know is that blind spots are expensive and we can do our best only if everyone's voices and ideas are taken into account and implemented equally”.
Offer various communication channels
Speaking up in group settings can be difficult for most people. Some prefer 1:1 settings while others prefer written forms. It's important for a leader to accommodate the various communication styles of their team members to make it easy for everyone to voice their thoughts.
Luckily, technology is here to help. Dedicated email and Slack channels for feedback, breakout rooms, and sprint retrospectives are alternative settings that can accommodate those who feel uncomfortable speaking up in more conventional settings.
Reframe challenges as learning opportunities
Humans speak up more if it feels like it’s a win-win situation. But how can it be a win-win situation if there is so much at stake?
In her TED talk, Amy Edmonson gives us the answer: “Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem”. When dealing with a learning challenge there is no failure, only learnings. Removing failure from the equation de-risks speaking up and promotes psychological safety.
To set the tone for the learning mindset, managers can take advantage of 1:1 meetings. One simple way to do it is by asking “What are the biggest takeaways from solving this challenge?” or “What’s an interesting thing you learned new this week?”.
People will feel more psychologically safe if they feel like they are accepted for being themselves.
By celebrating the diverse perspectives and experiences that each team member brings to the table, managers can encourage openness and invite people to be the most authentic version of themselves.
To achieve this, it's important to recognize and appreciate even the smallest contributions of all team members, regardless of their background, experience, or seniority. This can include highlighting their achievements in team meetings, recognizing their contributions in newsletters or communication apps, or hosting events that celebrate diversity and inclusion.
What everybody can do to foster psychological safety
Regardless of your role, you too can be a champion of psychological safety. By implementing these small yet impactful changes, you can help build a more inclusive and supportive work environment where everyone feels valued and respected.
Asking questions directly invites people to speak up. To create psychological safety, we all need to model curiosity and ask a lot of questions.
"There are naïve questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world." - Carl Sagan
I firmly believe the only stupid question is the one not asked. Every time we don’t ask a question we rob ourselves and others of learning moments. And since we’re reframing work as a learning opportunity, why would we do this to ourselves?
In order to create psychological safety we need to completely remove blaming language from our vocabulary.
Blameless postmortems are a good example of this. I first heard about “blameless postmortems” in the context of outages or implemented as a bookend for the lifecycle of any project. Basically, blameless postmortems are reviews of incidents or projects with the purpose of understanding what went well, what didn’t, and what can be done differently in the future.
For this process to work, the underlying assumption is that everyone involved did the best they could with the information they had at the time. The explicit use of the word “blameless” is very powerful because it indicates that there is no room for “this happened because of you” or “it’s your fault”. It’s okay to speak freely without fear of retaliation or blame.
Blameless postmortems are a great way of reframing challenges as learning opportunities, no matter how big or small. They provide a silver lining for a seemingly bad situation and put the organization in a much better position next time something similar happens.
It’s not “me vs you”, it’s “us vs the problem”
One of the most common misconceptions about psychological safety is that there will be no conflicts and that everything will be all warm and fuzzy.
To foster psychological safety, the point isn’t to eliminate conflicts but to rethink how we handle conflicting opinions. People are more likely to enter disagreements if their character is not at stake. To achieve this, we need to frame these conversations as “us vs the problem”. We might disagree about how to solve the problem, but we’re in it together to figure it out.
Make people feel heard
To speak up more, people need to feel heard. People will not express themselves if they feel like it doesn’t matter anyway.
To make people feel heard, we need to become better listeners. This means paying close attention to what people are saying, clarifying any misunderstandings, and asking follow-up questions to demonstrate that we are engaged in the conversation.
It’s also important to show empathy and understanding. This means acknowledging our teammates’ emotions and validating their perspectives, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them.
We did it! Now what?
Congratulations! Your organization has put in the hard work to become psychologically safe. The executive team introduced it as a cultural value in the all-hands, managers reinforced it in team meetings, and 1:1s encouraged you or your team members to speak up more. As a result, people feel safe bringing their full selves to work and diverse opinions have led to constructive decision-making. Now what?
Once created, maintaining psychological safety comes with its own challenges and requires strong leadership and constant monitoring. The way to do it is by reassessing the currently perceived levels of psychological safety of the team through quarterly surveys and exit interviews.
Does your workplace feel psychologically safe? Have any of these strategies above work for you? What are other ways to foster psychological safety? I’d love to hear from you.
Until next time,
Your caring techie
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