May 2019 – Psychological Safety

Psychological Safety
– the key to high performance or are we risking being too ‘nice’?

Before Google announced the findings from its research into high performing teams, called Project Aristotle in 2016, psychological safety wasn’t really on anyone’s radar.  Google spent years studying effective teams and found that it wasn’t who was in the team that mattered, it was how they worked together. This was represented by a combination of factors, including dependability, structure & clarity, meaning & purpose and Impact, with psychological safety coming top. High psychological safety was characterised by team-mates feeling safe to take risks, being able to make mistakes, ask questions and share ideas without the fear of punishment or embarrassment. Teams with high psychological safety at Google were better at harnessing diverse ideas, brought in more revenue and had lower staff turnover. Brené Brown (2018) summed it up in her book Dare to Lead: “If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmoured, whole hearts—so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people—we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected.”

Amy Edmondson re-ignited an interest in psychological safety with her research in the 1990s. She describes in her fascinating book, ‘The Fearless Organisation’ (2019), how she studied teams in a hospital and found that better teams reported more mistakes than other teams, the opposite correlation to the one she had anticipated. She found through further research that it wasn’t that they made more mistakes, it was that the teams felt able to talk about them. Importantly, there were significant differences between the teams, some leaders were creating the conditions, some weren’t.  This led her to study psychological safety as a group phenomenon and this work later influenced Google’s Project Aristotle.

Amy’s research built on the work of Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis in the 1960s, who showed that psychological safety was vital for overcoming defensiveness and learning anxiety, and the work of William Kahn who in the early 90s showed that psychological safety fostered employee engagement. Further research has shown that it helps to explain why employees; share information and knowledge, speak up with suggestions for organisational improvements, take initiative to develop new products and services and learn quickly and perform well, particularly in uncertain and changing times.

What happens when we don’t feel ‘safe’?

When we experience a threat our amygdala ‘hijacks’ our brain, resulting in us having less access to our prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for our executive functions: judgement, reasoning and long-term planning). We call this survival mode. It is the instinctive fight or flight response that absolutely made sense to our ancestors who might run into a predator at any time.  As well as predators, one of the greatest threats for early humans was rejection from their group. There is an underlying evolutionary tension between the necessity of group belonging for survival and the threat of rejection, which, for our ancestors would have led to certain death.  Neuroscientists in Italy have even discovered that ‘social pain’ (risks to status, autonomy and relatedness) activates the same brain regions as physical pain.

These days we don’t experience predators on a regular basis but there are many things that trigger our threat response; confrontation, email or text content, driving, public speaking, making mistakes.  In these situations our adrenal gland is pumping cortisol around our body preparing us to take action if needed.  Unfortunately cortisol suppresses oxytocin, the hormone that connects us with others and helps us to build trusting and stable long term relationships. So, in this state, we are less likely to be focused on collaborating with others and more likely to be focused on self-preservation. It is this self-preservation instinct that will make it less likely that you will take any risks that could lead to rejection, like challenging a colleague or sharing an idea.

In addition, when we are in survival mode we lose our flexibility of response. Barbara Fredrickson writes in her book ‘Positivity’ (2009), that fear gives us tunnelvision, meaning we have less access to our pre-frontal cortex and therefore to perspective and analytical reasoning.  This will undoubtably effect our decision making and performance.

It is essential that we help our teams to quieten their threat detection system.  This is especially true in uncertain and changing environments. If success is dependent on rapid change, continuous learning and collaboration then fear is not the most effective motivator.  It is a feeling of being on safe ground in the eye of the storm that enables our teams to perform at their best.

How can we increase psychological safety in our teams?

In essence, to increase levels of psychological safety we need to challenge ourselves and our leaders to notice their behaviours and style of leadership, particularly in respect to what they reward, their encouragement of participation and how they respond to failure in their teams.  It means we need to support leaders to be careful not to create climates of competition and fear.  There are four areas that we would encourage organisations to focus on:

1) Inclusive Leadership

In many ways this underpins everything. Inclusive leadership is a key performance enabler and one reason is its impact on psychological safety.  Inclusive leadership involves a mix of recognition and action. Firstly, recognising the diversity around us, then creating inclusion by inviting diverse skills, perspectives and challenge. It sounds simple but given human nature and our fast moving working worlds it often isn’t. The skill required to truly integrate diversity is underestimated.  One way is to get better at asking open and curious questions, truly listening to responses and setting an example of others to do the same so that you maximise the chances of candour. Ed Catmull, co-founder at Pixar has spoken about the leadership style that created psychological safety at Pixar. ‘Braintrust’ was an initiative launched in 1999 that helped Pixar to institutionalise candour through the encouragement of sharing ideas, opinions, criticism and having fun together. Inclusive leadership also means being conscious of how you respond, showing appreciation for what you’re hearing, being respectful and forward focused (rather than closing down perspectives or blaming).

2) De-stigmatise Failure

This is tricky because we know it’s not easy to face into failure. I’m sure most of us have worked in an environment where failure isn’t an option yet, ironically, this pressure can lead to failure. A well-known example being Volkswagen, where staff described experiencing a ‘special kind of pressure’. When their new Diesel engine, vital for success in the US market, failed emissions testing, employees challenged their creativity into cheating the system rather than admitting failure.

Recognising that there are different types of failure can help. Sometimes we fail because of error, sometimes because of a unique combination of events, sometimes because we’re in unchartered territory and are rapidly innovating.  No failures feel good, however we can learn from all of them.  Embracing what Carol Dweck in her research and book ‘Mindset’ (2017) calls a growth mindset, challenges us to see failure as a learning opportunity.

We can therefore approach failure in a way that builds psychological safety rather than destroy it and enables better decisions and results. It can help to be prepared, set clear expectations and respond with an appreciation for candour and a focus on what can be learnt.  

3) Manage our fear response

We can all take responsibility for helping ourselves and our teams to manage our fear response.  At Liz Margree & Associates Ltd we work with individuals and teams to build something called psychological flexibility. This is where we learn to notice what is going on in our minds and bodies, recognise our fear responses and the negative thoughts and feelings that accompany them, then actively choose a more helpful response to the situation based on our values. We use an approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to do this. ACT advocates developing mindfulness which can help us to create space and a more measured response to fear. There’s strong evidence showing the practise of mindfulness helps to train our neural pathways so we can generate more helpful responses.   Russ Harris’s book ‘The Happiness Trap’ (2008) is a great introduction to ACT and the benefits it can bring.

4) Measure Psychological Safety

It can help to get a feel for the level of psychological safety that currently exists within our teams. There are specific methodologies to measure psychological safety but you can measure elements with a more informal approach. Here are three suggestions:

  1. Ask incisive questions to understand people’s perceptions and experiences of their working environment. For example, ask: If you make a mistake in this team how often is it held against you, how easy is it for you to bring up problems and issues in this team? How well are your unique skills and talents valued in this team?
  2. Observe team members interactions to get a measure of how candid they are with each other, how often failure or disagreement is called out and how they respond to each other when this happens.
  3. Ask for feedback from the team’s stakeholders on those same measures, especially stakeholders who might see what you don’t have the opportunity to see.

Isn’t there a risk that performance will decrease if we are too ‘nice’?

This isn’t about being ‘nice’ because it doesn’t necessarily feel nice. It’s about creating an environment where people can speak candidly, have productive disagreement and free exchange of ideas without personal risk.  This enables faster learning, progress, more robust decisions and better results. It’s interesting to notice that often what we describe as a ‘nice’ working environment is characterised by people not challenging us or generating conflict. Things remain unsaid, that’s not psychological safety.

In summary

Simon Sinek puts is beautifully in his book Leaders Eat Last (2014): “When we feel like we belong to the group and trust the people with whom we work, we naturally cooperate to face outside challenges and threats.  When we do not have a sense of belonging, however, then we are forced to invest time and energy to protect ourselves from each other. And in so doing, we inadvertently make ourselves more vulnerable to the outside threats and challenges. Plus, with our attention facing inward, we will also miss outside opportunities.  When we feel safe among the people with whom we work, the more likely we are to survive and thrive.  That’s just the way it is.”

Further Reading

  • Brown, B, 2018, Dare to Lead – Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole Hearts
  • Delizonna, L, 2017, High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Heres How to Create It, Harvard Business Review
  • Dweck, C, 2017, Mindset – Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential
  • Edmonson, A, 2019, The fearless organisation – creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth
  • Fredrickson, B, 2009, Positivity – Groundbreaking research to release your inner optimist and thrive
  • Harris, R, 2008, The Happiness Trap
  • Siegel, D, 2010, Mindsight – Transform your brain with the new science of kindness
  • Sinek, S, 2014, Leaders eat last – Why some teams pull together and others don’t
  • Syed, M, 2015 – Black Box Thinking – Marginal gains and the secret of high performance