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Create high performing teams with psychological safety

uploaded on 14 March 2024

As a concept, psychological safety, is often mistaken by managers as the need to create a risk-free, safe environment in which employees feel comfortable to do their best work. While it’s partly about creating a pleasant team dynamic, in today’s fast-paced, increasingly complex world, teams have to get comfortable with operating outside their comfort zone.

In this context, the purpose of psychological safety is to nurture an environment in which colleagues feel encouraged to experiment, produce innovative solutions and share honest feedback with one another about what is or isn’t working. It also requires them to take calculated risks and learn from mistakes without fear of negative judgement from peers or their boss.

Since the term first appeared sixty years ago, extensive research, ranging from hospital medical staff through to software development teams at global tech firms, has found that the presence of psychological safety in a team is one of the strongest predictors of team performance, productivity, quality, safety, creativity, and innovation. Research also shows it substantially contributes to better health outcomes, team learning, retention, decision making and performance.

How can organisations that want the benefits that a psychologically safe environment offers, start to create one? The first thing to realise is that psychological safety isn’t the norm and doesn’t happen by chance. It has to be created with intention and on purpose.

In this case, transforming work culture must be created top down. That’s because a recent CIPD evidence review found five of the seven pre-conditions necessary to achieve psychological safety relate to leaders and managers. As climate creators, permission givers, and fairness mediators, leaders first need to understand how critical their role is to create and sustain an environment that facilitates high performance.

Leaders and managers need proper training and support to develop the necessary skills that will enable them to explore disagreements and discuss any tensions in a team. To focus on and enable team success over their own. To approach “mistakes” with curiosity. As an opportunity for the team to learn together rather than single individuals out for blame.

That’s easier said than done. Under stress, our brains get hijacked by a hard-wired emotional response that impairs our ability to respond in such a reasonable and rational way. Leaders need to understand how to recognise and override these “natural” stress-induced responses and practice this skill in a live work environment. Mastery of this fight or flight response is the foundation on which the other skills can be built. Without it, leaders will tend to revert to negative judgement, self-protection, and punitive measures.

Related to this point, employers need to ensure that its performance management processes, and any recognition and reward initiatives, align with the principles of managing for psychological safety. Review the values and behaviours that underpin any strategic reward and recognition programme to ensure they support rather than undermine psychological safety. Similarly, ensure performance management criteria includes mastery goals and that employees are rewarded for taking calibrated risks and learning from mistakes.

It'll be clear to experienced Learning and Development professionals that this depth of mindset change, and upskilling, won’t be achieved by sheep-dipping managers through an off the shelf, one-off training course. It needs to be embedded in the organisation’s approach to leadership development. Part of a development strategy that allows leaders to practice new skills, and experiment with applying the learning within the context of their team’s day-to-day work. Without this critical first step, managers won’t be able to model the behaviour and conversations they expect to see replicated across their teams.

When managers are secure in their own ability to nurture a psychologically safe environment, the next step is to further support them to instil a peer-to-peer coaching culture among team members. Doing so will enable team members to reflect on team dynamics, spot and constructively articulate to each other when psychological safety is compromised and take corrective action to reinstate trust.

Creating an organisation-wide culture of psychological safety takes time, effort and thought, done well it will not only create high-performing teams but also drive greater value from recognition and reward and employee retention initiatives.

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