4/29/2020 | 3 MINUTE READ

Foster Teams that Support Psychological Safety

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The behaviors that create psychological safety — conversational turn-taking and empathy — are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond.

We are living in a business world that is going through mass transformation regarding human capital. Manufacturers do not have enough of the “right employees” and, with 7 million job openings in the U.S. each day, employees have more job options than ever before.

Typically, the “right employees” are defined as the highest performers within an organization. How can manufacturers create an environment for the “right employees” to thrive? The need for high performing employee’s cuts across all sectors of employment. One employer, Google, decided to try to crack the code of what made a great, high performing employee. In a two-year study of its internal workforce, Google asked the question what makes a high performing team? The answer: psychological safety, the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake.

The behaviors that create psychological safety — conversational turn-taking and empathy — are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond. And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else.

Today, people work in teams more than ever before. One study, published in the “Harvard Business Review found that ‘‘the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more’’ over the last two decades.

To further understand what psychological safety is, it’s best to look at the work of Harvard Business School professor, Amy Edmondson. Ms. Edmonson suggests that psychological safety has these components:

team hands cheering
  • First, it is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.
  • Psychological safety is a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.
  • It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

How can your organization create psychological safety? Consider changing the behaviors and norms within your corporate culture. Here are four things psychologically safe organizations practice.

  1. Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary. True success at work comes from a win-win result. When we experience a perceived loss, this loss triggers attempts to reestablish fairness through competition, criticism or disengagement. Start with the mindset of achieving a mutually desired outcome, which will quell our instinctual “fight or flight” reaction.
  2. Speak human to human — a “just like me” mindset. We all have universal needs such as respect, competence, social status and autonomy. When you are having an intense negotiation, for example, the other party is just like you and aims to walk away happy. This person has beliefs, perspectives, and opinions, just like you. This person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like you, and this person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me.
  3. Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves. Before you engage with a co-worker, proactively think of how the other person will react to you. Lean into uncomfortable conversations head on by preparing for likely reactions. Think about your main points. What are three ways the recipient of my message is possibly going to react? How will I handle each of those scenarios?
  4. Replace blame with curiosity. Borrow a technique from renowned marriage counselor, John Gottman. His work shows that blame and criticism reliably escalate conflict, leading to defensiveness and eventually to disengagement. Adopt a learning mindset, knowing you don’t have all the facts. State the problematic behavior or outcome as an observation, and use factual, neutral language. If you have an employee who is underperforming, you may say “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 them in an exploration. For example, “I imagine there are multiple factors at play. Perhaps we could uncover what they are together?” Ask for solutions. The people who are responsible for creating a problem often hold the keys to solving it. Ask directly, “What do you think needs to happen here?” Or, “What would be your ideal scenario?” Another question leading to solutions is, “How could I support you?”

If you create this sense of psychological safety within your organization, you can expect to see higher levels of engagement, increased motivation to tackle difficult problems, more learning and development opportunities, and better performance.

About the Author

Todd Palmer

Todd Palmer

Todd Palmer is the president of Diversified Industrial Staffing, a national skilled labor recruiting firm, based in Troy, Michigan. 
Contact tpalmer@diversifiedindustrialstaffing.com.


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