Psychological safety at work

Remove fear to create safety.

Unique Challenge

Psychological safety is a forerunner to adaptive, innovative performance, which is particularly important in today’s rapidly changing environment at the individual, team and organization levels. Creating organizations that empower teams to successfully perform and tackle problems quickly – often operating outside of siloed structure – requires a strong degree of psychological safety.

So, what is psychological safety?

It’s an absence of interpersonal fear. It’s the belief someone won’t be punished when they make a mistake. It allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking one’s mind, creativity and the freedom for someone to stick their neck out without fear of it being cut off – the types of behaviors that solve tough problems and lead to market breakthroughs.

Bespoke Approach

Google Head of Industry, Telecom & Consumer Electronics Paul Santagata noted the results of the company’s two-year study on team performance revealed the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: Psychological safety.

Ancient evolutionary adaptions explain why psychological safety is both fragile and vital to success in uncertain, interdependent environments. The brain processes a provocation by a boss, competitive co-worker or dismissive subordinate as a life-or-death threat. The amygdala – the brain’s alarm bell – ignites the fight-or-flight response, hijacking higher brain centers.

This “act first, think later” brain structure shuts down perspective and analytical reasoning. While that fight-or-flight reaction may save people in dire situations, it dismantles strategic thinking in the workplace.

In addition, University of North Carolina Psychology Professor Barbara Fredrickson proposes 21st century success depends on another system: The broaden-and-build mode of positive emotion, which allows people to solve complex problems and foster cooperative relationships.

Positive emotions such as trust, curiosity, confidence and inspiration, broaden the mind and help us build psychological, social and physical resources. We become open-minded, resilient, motivated and persistent when we feel safe. Humor increases. So does solution finding, divergent thinking (the cognitive process underlying creativity) and learning.

So how can an organization increase psychological safety? Try replicating Santagata’s approach:

1\ Look at conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary. Humans hate to lose – period. A perceived loss triggers attempts to reestablish fairness through competition, criticism or disengagement. Santagata knows true success is a win-win. So, when conflicts come up, he avoids triggering a fight-or-flight reaction by asking, “How can we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?”

2\ Speak as one human being to another. Underlying teams’ who-did-what conversations are universal needs, such as respect, competence, social status and autonomy. As a leader, recognizing these deeper needs naturally elicits trust and promotes positive language and behaviors. Santagata reminded his team that, even in the most contentious negotiations, the other party is just like them and aims to walk away happy. He led them through a reflection called “Just Like Me,” which asks you to consider:

  • This person has beliefs, perspectives and opinions, just like me.
  • This person has hopes, anxieties and vulnerabilities, just like me.
  • This person has friends, family and, perhaps, children who love them, just like me.
  • This person wants to feel respected, appreciated and competent, just like me.
  • This person wishes for peace, joy and happiness, just like me.

3\ Plan a response after anticipating reactions. “Thinking through in advance how your audience will react to your messaging helps ensure your content will be heard, versus your audience hearing an attack on their identity or ego,” Santagata explained. As he anticipates his team’s reactions, he asks himself:

  • What are my main points?
  • What are three ways my listeners are likely to respond?
  • How will I respond to each of those scenarios?

4\ Assume good intentions, replacing blame with curiosity. If team members senses blame, a threat is created. John Gottman’s research at the University of Washington shows blame and criticism reliably escalate conflict. This leads to defensiveness and – eventually – disengagement. Blame’s alternative is curiosity. To create psychological safety, use natural curiosity:

  • State the problem as an observation, using factual, neutral language (e.g., “In the past two months there’s been a noticeable drop in your participation during meetings and progress appears to be slowing on your project.”)
  • Engage your colleague in an exploration (e.g., “I imagine there are multiple factors at play. Perhaps we could uncover what they are together?”)
  • Ask for solutions. Those closest to the problem often hold the keys to solving it (e.g., “What do you think needs to happen here?” or “What would be your ideal scenario?”)
  • Lastly, “How could I support you?” is a powerful question that builds psychological safety and helps strengthen personal connection, while holding the person accountable.

5\ Ask for feedback on delivery. Asking for feedback on how you delivered your message disarms the other person, while illuminating your own blind spots in communication skills. At the same time, you’re modeling fallibility, which increases trust. Santagata closes difficult conversations with these questions:

  • What worked and what didn’t work in my delivery?
  • How did it feel to hear this message?
  • How could I have presented it more effectively?

Santagata asked about his delivery after giving his senior manager tough feedback. His manager replied, “This could have felt like a punch in the stomach, but you presented reasonable evidence and that made me want to hear more. You were also eager to discuss the challenges I had, which led to solutions.”

6\ Go beyond one-off training programs and deploy an at-scale system of leadership development. Human behaviors are not easily shifted, so targeted training programs alone are unlikely to succeed. Shifting leadership behaviors within a complex system begins with defining a clear strategy aligned to the organization’s overall aspirations and the leadership skills required to achieve it.

Proven Impact

Investing in emotional and sensory leadership development experiences that create meaningful, even visceral, “aha!” moments yield immediate and long-term results in the life of that leader.

Immersive and engaging learning experiences are remembered more clearly for a longer period. An over-sized focus on content misses the point. Creating learning experiences that prompt leaders to engage with and shift underlying assumptions and emotions help bring about lasting mindset changes that create cultures of inclusiveness and psychological safety.

Unify Consulting understands that investing in the development of leaders at all levels is a key strategy that creates psychological safety and enables employees to develop and perform. Research shows a handful of specific skills and behaviors in learning programs can improve the likelihood of positive leadership behaviors that foster psychological safety and, ultimately, strong team performance, and Unify partners with organizations to create those meaningful solutions.