6 practical steps on how to promote psychological safety in your team

In my last article, I wrote about recognising and dealing with toxic leadership. This time, I got several messages from friends and clients asking if I’m referring to a particular leader or organisation I worked for. 

The honest answer is ‘Yes’ and ‘No!’ In my practice over the years, I have been exposed to several situations where toxic leadership was very evident, and I had witnessed  the negative effect on the company and the individuals working there first-hand.

Many asked what the antidote to toxic leadership is. I’m aware that there is no one-size-fits-all solution here, but I want to focus on something that will set the grounds for a healthier working environment.

What is psychological safety?

Think about the best team you worked in. What made it the best, how did you feel? Now think about the worst one. What was different, how comfortable did you feel to be who you are and to express your ideas and expectations? 

Psychological safety became a buzzword in the past few years, and many see it as the next trend in organisational development, but the truth is that it is more than a trend in leadership and management. 

Psychological safety is one of the pillars of any successful organisation and team. It is “the ​belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.​” (Dr Amy Edmondson).

Psychological safety isn’t about everyone agreeing on everything, and does not guarantee comfort – it is the opposite. Team members can disagree and challenge each other, be respectful, and stimulate participation and creativity.

The lack of psychological safety can lead to employees and whole teams leaving the organisation, poor morale, more work-related incidents, loss of knowledge and ruined reputation. 

For the individual, poor psychological safety will lead to anxiety, lack of creativity, withdrawal from participation and teamwork and eventually, burnout. 

Organisations that foster good psychological safety will benefit from quicker idea-to-market time, creative working culture, improving morale and trust, good retention of talent and a positive public image. 

If you are a leader, these six practical steps on promoting and improving psychological safety in your team will help you take better care of your team or organisation. 

  • Measure. There are different ways of measuring psychological safety, but the one I use in my work will give you an idea if your team is ‘Thriving, Hiving or Surviving’. Ideally, we aim at thriving teams, and if we have an environment where the employees are in hiving or surviving mode, we need to actively seek ways to improve that. 

In recent work with a company I did, we measured the level of psychological safety in a team, and found that the team is heading towards surviving mode. The team members were thinking of leaving the organisation and were not receiving much support from their managers.  

We held a session with the leaders of the team where the problem was presented and explained, and they were asked to start working on improving the situation. The leadership of the team took the initiative to inform the team about the findings from the report, and together they looked at what needed to be done.

Eight months later we measured again and found a very different picture – the team moved more on the thriving side and the level of care and internal support had increased significantly. The team members were feeling safe and there was trust and respect.

  • Training for leaders and managers. Educate leaders on psychological safety and how they can contribute to both healthy and unhealthy working ecosystems. Such training will give them the knowledge and the tools to spot the problem and identify ways of fostering relationships of trust and respect. 

  • What three things can have an immediate positive effect on the team? Once you realise that the team is not feeling safe anymore, and you are starting to work on restoring that safety, ask the team members what three things will have an immediate positive effect on them. Sometimes, even small and simple things will bring good change and will give the team members the feeling that everything is under control and constructive change is coming.

  • Learn from mistakes. See the mistakes as a learning opportunity and allow them to happen. We look at mistakes as something that is a matter of ‘life or death’, but mistakes bring a lot of learning with them. Punishing for every potential mistake will encourage employees to hide and cover errors and faults, and that is unhealthy in the long term.

At the same time, make sure that everyone knows what is expected from them and what they need to do in case they make a mistake.

  • Allow vulnerability and emotions. This is not the first time I mention vulnerability in my articles, and I cannot stop stressing how important and healthy this is for the leaders and employees. It allows them to not know everything, not have every solution in their pocket and simply say “I’m not sure what to do next”.  

Be honest with yourself – do you know everything, are you always strong and in the best mood and spirit? So, how do you expect the others to be superheroes? 

  • Remain open to feedback. As leaders, we grow by developing great self-awareness and constantly seeking and evaluating feedback. Often, we are not aware of our blind spots and how they are troubling our team members. This can be behaviour with no negative intention from our side, but still can be upsetting for others. Allowing unrequested and spontaneous, constructive, and well-minded feedback allows us to correct our actions, provide an explanation and restore safety.

Don’t forget that feedback works best when it is coming from both sides. Teams with a positive attitude toward giving and receiving feedback have better team dynamics, approach conflict constructively and in a timelier way, and are fun to work with. 

Bonus tip: Be patient! 

“Patience is a key element of success,” said Bill Gates a few years ago. Your patience will be tested often, and realising this and remaining calm will give your team reassurance that all is under control in turbulent times. A patient leader will set the right speed for the team and make the communication smoother, safer and more effective. 

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