The importance of psychological safety

From a team perspective, psychological safety is the bedrock that team success is built on. Successful interpersonal relationships depend on it. In highly functioning teams it often doesn’t get a mention. Safety is one of those things not always noticed when present but is conspicuous by its absence. What follows are some suggestions on how to make your team feel safe enough to tell you things you don’t want to hear.

Teams take on the character and persona of the team manager. I’ve experienced this many times in my career. If the team manager or lead is confident, outward-looking and collaborative, the team they lead will demonstrate some or all of these behaviours. Team managers that are hoarders, who protect only their team’s resources will cause those behaviours to be reflected further down in their organisations. The attitude and approach of the team manager directly impacts on the team’s performance.

Google’s famous study of what makes high performing teams identified psychological safety as being the most important factor in determining the success of the team.

Connecting these two threads together, a team lead or manager who creates a safe environment for learning by trial and error and allows for challenging discussions or questioning of orthodoxies will increase the chances of a high-performance culture forming in the team.

In “Black Box Thinking”, Matthew Syed writes about the cultural differences between the airline and healthcare industries. In the early days of commercial aviation, it was uncommon for the captain to be questioned by members of the flight crew, even if they knew something was wrong. This culture of non-questioning obedience persists today in large areas of healthcare. The surgeon leading an operation is less likely to be questioned by an operating theatre nurse, for example, than an airline captain is to be questioned by a first officer.

The outcome for the airline industry has been a continued improvement in aviation safety. Where the old school culture of unquestioning obedience has persisted in a healthcare setting, patient safety is at significant risk.

What can we, as managers and leaders, do to develop a culture of psychological safety? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Admit publicly when you are wrong. Set the stage for your staff to question you by removing any suggestion of infallibility.
  2. Encourage people to question your logic and that of other team members. This has to be done respectfully but is crucial to the success of teams.
  3. Thank people for calling you out when you make a mistake or do something that negatively impacts the performance of the team.
  4. Treat mistakes as opportunities for learning, instead of reasons for punishment.

These things by themselves won’t guarantee high-performing teams, but the absence of a safe culture will absolutely lead to sub-par outcomes. If you have other suggestions, I’d be delighted to hear them. Lead on!

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