Henry Ford is reported to have said, “Why is it that every time I hire a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?” This thinking is a reflection of how work was managed in a manufacturing era, where the repetitive nature of tasks required people to think as little as possible. The purpose of a team during these times was to manage the execution of a repeatable process as efficiently as possible. Leaders relied on authority, hierarchy, incentives, rewards and punishments to keep teams productive. History has shown that this approach was successful and worked well in a manufacturing era, however times have subsequently changed.
The VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) times of today demand the exact opposite to this philosophy. Organisations now need people who can think for themselves, with the capacity to learn and develop new skills and approaches. In this fast changing and unpredictable world, it’s your ability to continuously learn and adapt that makes for a successful enterprise and sets you apart from the competition. In VUCA times, organisations need a new approach. Instead of only focusing on executing more efficiently, they also need to focus on learning; and in that way develop the necessary human capital that is so essential for long-term success in today’s increasingly competitive world.
“Our behaviour is driven by a fundamental core belief: the desire and the ability of any organisation to continuously learn from any source, anywhere, and to rapidly convert this learning into action is its ultimate competitive advantage.” – Jack Welch
It’s only through constant learning that an organisation can adapt to changes and disruptions in the environment. In support of the need for increased learning, organisations are moving towards team-based structures that encourage collaboration and learning. Effective teams learn from their experiences and use the knowledge gained to adapt to the environment. Through this process an organisation can transform itself, improving its fitness and ability to deal with rapid change.
Learning faster than the competition is one of the few remaining sources of sustainable competitive advantage in business today. If organisations are to successfully deal with constant change, they will have to increase their ability to learn and find ways to both encourage and reward their team members for their endeavours and commitment in this regard.
In a nutshell: Learning has become a core pillar of sustained competitive advantage.
Psychological Safety: The Foundation of Team Learning and Performance
You cannot create a high-performing team if people don’t feel safe. Maslow’s hierarchy, for instance, highlights safety as a basic human need. It’s also the key to unlocking high performance in teams, as without the corresponding safety, creativity is stifled.
One of the critical characteristics of a successful team is therefore psychological safety, a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, which she defines as:
“a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
In her research, Amy Edmondson assessed a team’s level of psychological safety by using the following seven-item survey:
- If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
- Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
- People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
- It is safe to take risk on this team.
- It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
- No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.
In psychologically unsafe environments, any mistake you make will be held against you.
Speaking up and sharing ideas at work can be difficult. People are often afraid that their boss, colleagues or those considered experts won’t like what they have to say. This fear causes people to hold back on their ideas, questions and concerns. People in teams with low psychological safety are also reluctant to disclose errors, seek feedback or ask for help. These behaviours reduce the team’s ability to collaborate, to learn, to make effective decisions and to improve their performance.
In contrast, teams with high psychological safety are able to benefit from the ideas of all team members. In such situations people feel safe to share ideas, ask questions, raise concerns, request help and seek feedback. Team members feel safe to speak up, to share their ideas, to respond respectfully to others and to participate in healthy debate. A psychologically safe team is able to have open discussions and is also tolerant of disagreement and conflicting points of view.
As illustrated above, psychological safety is the foundation of team performance. Before a team can learn and thereby increase its performance it needs to feel psychologically safe.
“For a team to discover gaps in its plan and make changes accordingly, team members must test assumptions and discuss differences of opinion openly rather than privately or outside the group.” – Amy Edmondson, Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams
A team feels psychologically safe when individuals share the belief that others will be supportive if they make themselves vulnerable. In psychologically safe environments, people more easily engage in behaviours such as sharing controversial ideas, speaking up, asking questions, admitting mistakes, seeking feedback, asking for help and raising concerns. It’s these behaviours that assist a team to learn and it is learning, after all, that leads to increased team performance and therefore better productivity and competitive advantage.
Seek to Drive Fear Out of Your Team
“Drive Fear Out” is Point 8 of W. Edward Deming’s famous 14-point management philosophy, as described in his book Out of the Crisis. Deming is credited for helping Japanese businesses such as Toyota improve their quality and lower their costs, and thereby allowing them to dominate global markets. Deming views fear as damaging to a company’s long-term performance as it prevents team members from acting in the organisation’s best interests.
In brief: Fear paralyses teams, shuts down learning and in that way hampers or even kills team performance. Once this happens, there is no management process or best practice that can come to your aid.
Some of the indicators of a fear-based environment include the following:
- The lack of candid and open conversation.
- Limited discussion and feedback in meetings.
- People feel that they cannot speak their mind.
- Low levels of collaboration.
- Increased anxiety and stress.
- Individuals and teams are risk averse
- A reluctance to share mistakes, bad news and failures with management.
- Withholding information.
- People look for ways to hide mistakes and failures.
- Limited commitment to action plans.
- Blaming of others for mistakes and failures.
- People are less likely to be accountable and take responsibility.
- People are simply checking boxes and going with the flow, lacking meaningful engagement.
Leaders must therefore work to drive out fear and ensure that no one is afraid of sharing ideas and asking questions.
How Leaders Can Promote an Environment of Psychological Safety
Improving a team’s psychological safety starts with leaders. Research shows that team members are very sensitive to the team leaders’ behaviour. The way a leader responds to situations strongly influence a team’s perceptions of safe behaviour. Leaders must hence take the lead by acting in ways that promote and encourage psychological safety.
“Leaders live in a fishbowl and are always being watched. They should always be conscious of that fact and take advantage of it.” – Gene Klann
One of the most powerful influences on a team’s psychological safety is the team leader. Team members look to leaders for direction and clues as to how to behave. The team’s culture is the shadow of its leader. It’s therefore imperative that leaders commit to promoting a climate of psychological safety.
Leaders need to deliberately encourage the behaviours they want the team to adopt. A leader’s actions speak louder than words when creating a climate of psychological safety.
You may be asking, “What can leaders do to create psychological safety within their teams?” Good question! Let’s explore some ways leaders can promote such a climate of psychological safety.
Be Inclusive and Accessible
A psychologically safe environment requires team members to feel that they’re accepted and respected and are free to speak their minds. There are a number of ways that leaders can assist team members to feel respected as an important part of the team.
- Be civil. This means paying attention to the contribution of others and responding to ideas with due consideration. Make supportive language expected team behaviour. Don’t interrupt or allow interruptions, but help ensure the ideas of other are being heard and considered.
- Be inclusive in your decision-making. Actively seek the input, opinions and feedback from others. Leaving people out of your decisions can hurt their feeling and makes them feel unimportant and less safe. In addition, be sure to explain the reasoning behind your decisions.
- Acknowledge the ideas of others. When leaders dismiss the ideas of others – including being dismissive of radical ideas – people feel put down and are less likely to share ideas in the future and conform to ideas shared by the broader team. Even if you disagree with an idea, by acknowledging the idea and giving it due consideration you build a team’s psychological safety.
- Be accessible to team members. Being accessible is important for building psychological safety. This requires making yourself available to the team so they can quickly ask questions and receive feedback, which, when combined with providing advice, promotes safety and therefore better team performance.
Being inclusive and accessible is essential for building psychological safety.
Acknowledge Your Own Mistakes
Lead by showing your team what you expect of them by admitting your mistakes, sharing your failures and shortcomings, and therefore encouraging your team members to do the same.
Do you trust others who can’t be vulnerable? The answer is likely no. The same goes for the members of your team. When you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you make it safe for others to be vulnerable as well. In this way you set the example and let people know that it’s safe to talk about mistakes.
Promoting psychological safety requires leaders to become vulnerable and to share their vulnerability. Acknowledging one’s own failures, mistakes and shortcomings is one way to be vulnerable. When you admit your mistakes you help people become comfortable in admitting their own mistakes and failures.
Encourage Team Members to Speak Up
Speaking up happens when team members feel free to share ideas, voice their concerns and challenge the status quo. When people speak up, companies benefit from new ideas and the identification of areas for improvement.
In a climate of psychological safety, people feel safe to voice their opinions and share their ideas, whether positive or negative.
Encouraging people to speak up means making it safe for leaders to be challenged. However, research has shown that leaders tend to react negatively to employees who challenge them, even when done constructively. So whilst it’s important to encourage team members to speak up, what’s even more important is how leaders respond when people give voice to their concerns.
How a leader responds to feedback has a huge impact on team norms. Dismissing a concern or an idea from a team member can increase the perceived risks of speaking up, which then erodes the development of psychological safety across the team. In a psychologically safe environment everyone can expect that they would be heard when raising concerns or sharing ideas.
Psychological safety allows team members to speak up, to have the ‘tough conversations’, to face reality and to maximise the learning required for teams to respond to uncertainty and an ever-changing business environment.
Lead with Questions
One effective way to encourage people to speak up is by asking questions. When leaders ask questions they are demonstrating their curiosity and interest in the team’s ideas. Asking a lot of questions creates the need for the team to generate answers, which in turn fosters a sense of inclusion.
When leaders say they “don’t know” to a question, they invite others within the team to assist them in finding the correct answer.
Embrace Failures as Learning Opportunities
This is difficult for many leaders to do as no one likes to fail. However, to promote a climate of psychological safety you need to help people feel comfortable with failure and making mistakes. Team members need to know that they are free to experiment and err.
Inevitably, teams are going to make mistakes. And when they do, the team leader needs to embrace their mistakes as an opportunity to learn. There is no blame, finger pointing or shame. When leaders embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, they help the team become comfortable with the idea of failure.
Commit to a No Blame Culture
Encourage a no blame approach. In a no blame culture, team members aren’t penalised for admitting mistakes or requesting help. When something goes wrong, instead of looking for someone to blame by asking “Who did this?”, begin by asking, “What can we learn from this?”
Assigning blame does nothing to help the team solve actual problems. Blame shifts the focus from the problem to the person and creates a climate of fear. When team members blame each other for mistakes and failures the opportunity for learning is lost. Blame only leads to negativity and fear.
Leaders promote psychological safety when they treat failure as a learning opportunity. Therefore, rather than seeking to assign blame, build psychological safety by treating failure as a necessary lesson.
Balance Psychological Safety with Accountability
Nurturing psychological safety is not about being soft, nor is it about lowering performance standards. It’s about recognising that high performance demands psychological safety.
Psychological safety cannot exist when there is ambiguity. Psychological safety means having clarity about goals and team norms. Whilst a climate of safety embraces risk-taking, mistakes and failure, it’s not an environment where anything goes. Leaders must be clear as to the team goals and norms. By clearly communicating such goals, outcomes and norms they create the structure necessary to build psychological safety along with all the benefits that accompany it.
Leaders must therefore be careful to balance psychological safety with accountability for achieving goals. Psychologically safe teams still have consequences for a lack of performance. Effective teams reward high performance and deal with poor performance whilst embracing failures and mistakes.
Establishing a combination of psychological safety and accountability is essential for high-performing teams.
The best way to begin the journey towards promoting a psychologically safe climate is to start small, as it’s a small number of consistent actions that build psychologically safety over time.
To begin, brainstorm a list of ideas that you can use to develop psychological safety in your team. Pick one idea to start with that you feel will make the biggest difference, and then focus on implementing this single idea over the next week. Once that is done, select another idea to focus on for the following week. And so on. Pretty soon, you’ll have created the necessary psychological safely to elevate your team to the next level of mutual cooperation, trust and efficiency, and in that way add great value not only to your business, but also to the human capital upon which its growth and success is ultimately dependent.