Psychological safety can exist (or not) between two or more individuals. It is studied most in corporate settings but is important for any team or group to be effective, including a family.
Amy Edmondson (2014) defines psychological safety as
individuals’ perceptions about the consequences of interpersonal risks in their work environment. It consists of taken-for-granted beliefs about how others will respond when one puts oneself on the line, such as asking a question, seeking feedback, reporting a mistake, or proposing a new idea.
More succinctly, she describes it as
The confidence that candor and vulnerability are welcome.*
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An environment of psychological safety is a means to the primary goal of solving complex problems. Such environments are characterized by skillfully open, vulnerable, and effective communication, individual and team learning, feelings of belonging, acceptance, and supportive relationships.
Psychological safety can lead to positive results of
- Quicker, better solutions to strategic problems related to internal and external processes.
- Increased employee engagement.
- Access to a diversity of thought, experience, and innovative ideas.
- Positive culture.
- Maximum effectiveness, efficiency, and productivity.
- Improved individual and collective well-being.
Without it, fear rules, and the fight-run-hide response is active. People will avoid difficult but needed conversations. They will keep their ideas and opinions to themselves and hide their mistakes. In addition, you can expect individuals and the group to experience:
- Distorted communication.
- Limited cognitive function.
- Narrowing and distortion of perspectives.
- Stagnation of growth in positive results and relationships.
- Loss of invaluable contributions.
It’s natural for people to enter any setting with a protective posture for their well-being. To overcome this, it takes effort to create a sense of safety, including modeling, training, and practice.
Here are some tips for creating psychological safety in relationships, groups, and teams.
- Establish psychological safety as a corporate/group value for the positive results it can yield.
- Value mistakes and failures as learning opportunities to be shared and discussed openly without fear of blame or retribution.
- Give up the need to be right. Approach interactions with a posture of curiosity and inquiry versus solely advocating for your position.
- Support and encourage others in being vulnerable, expressing their opinions, floating ideas, and being honest about their mistakes.
- Increase awareness of your biases, their nature, depth, and breadth. Everyone has biases, and they are not necessarily bad, but it’s essential that you know what yours are. Otherwise, they can influence all you do without your awareness.
- Cultivate the ability to temporarily lower your biases (lay them aside) to hear the other person’s message unfiltered by those biases. Notice the times you are arguing in your head while you listen. This is evidence of a bias that is filtering what you are hearing.
- Encourage healthy arguments. Argue respectfully as if you are right while embracing the truth that you could be wrong. Make every effort to focus on principles and issues versus arguing “with” the other person.
- Encourage others to challenge your thoughts and opinions.
- Identify and train the skills needed for creating psychological safety. Schedule sessions devoted to practicing these skills.
- Celebrate what the environment does for your group. Have participants recall how expressing candor, vulnerability, and perspective-taking led to successful outcomes in the past.
It is not enough to talk about psychological safety, wish for it, or expect others to create it. Your leadership and modeling are essential for creating the psychologically safe environment you want for the greater success of your group, team, and organization.
For most, this requires adjusting long-standing ways of being and doing. True Course can support you with individual and team coaching as you walk through the stages of developing the psychologically safe environment you want will more effectively lead to the results you want for your life and work.
* https://hbr.org/2021/06/4-steps-to-boost-psychological-safety-at-your-workplace Edmondson and Hugander, 2021.