There are many things that contribute to the success of a team: steady finances, great leadership, creativity, and innovation. But experts say there’s another valued element to organizational success. It’s called “psychological safety,” a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. She and others agree that it is key to fostering engagement, motivation, innovation, and continuous learning. As leaders strive for open communication and team harmony, the journey to genuine psychological safety within their team is riddled with challenges. Here, we delve into the intricacies of building psychological safety and the common missteps leaders take in their pursuit.
The Foundations of Psychological Safety
At its core, psychological safety is a shared belief within a team that encourages risk-taking, idea expression, questioning, and admitting mistakes without fear of reprisal. Research, including Google's Project Aristotle, underlines its pivotal role in enhancing team effectiveness and overall organizational performance.
But actively building psychological safety is a job unto itself. In her work, Edmondson has boiled down the concept into a 7-item questionnaire to help leaders tangibly assess the psychological safety within their team. Once evaluated, creating a psychologically safe workplace involves good management practices, clear norms, open communication, active listening, and appreciation for speaking up. For a manager or business leader, focus on learning through mistakes, both their own and those of their employees is key. Doing so centers compassion rather than judgment.
Common Pitfalls for Leaders
Leaders often grapple with the balance between compassion and judgment; weighing team harmony against hard data and bottom lines. The challenge lies in acknowledging this discomfort and tension and embracing it as a prerequisite for genuine psychological safety.
Yet, this is where many leaders struggle, even if they desire open communication. Data suggests that only about 26% of leaders develop the necessary skills to create psychological safety for their teams. Instead, they fall victim to pitfalls, such as feigning uncertainty, soliciting feedback without intent, and responding to failure with artificial compassion inadvertently. These, even if well-intentioned, create counterfeit versions of psychological safety.
Embracing Discomfort Can Be a Superpower
So, how can leaders avoid these pitfalls? Authenticity.
Authentic psychological safety demands leaders to embrace the messiness of disagreement, emotional discomfort, and the courage to engage with failure compassionately.
"Candor is hard, but non-candor is worse," Edmundson asserts.
Genuine psychological safety cannot be achieved through pretense. It requires leaders to regulate their emotions honestly, creating an atmosphere where all voices are heard, failures are acknowledged and learned from, and feedback is offered clearly and graciously.
In the pursuit of genuine psychological safety, leaders must recognize that discomfort is not the antithesis of success but a stepping stone to it. "Anything hard to achieve requires being uncomfortable along the way," Edmunson says. It is not about perpetual comfort but about creating a safe space where risks can be taken, mistakes acknowledged, and learning is a continuous journey. The imperative for leaders is clear: foster psychological safety authentically, for it is the bedrock upon which resilient, innovative, and high-performing teams are built.
This article was originally published in Certainty News.