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Psychological Safety – The Secret of the Best Performing Teams

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. The term was coined by Amy Edmondson, currently the Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School. As a graduate student, Amy was observing medical teams and trying to distinguish what separated the best performing teams from the worst. Her hypothesis was that the best teams would make the least mistakes. But that wasn’t the case at all. In fact, the best performing teams appeared to be making more errors than their counterparts.

How could the best performing teams be the ones who made the most mistakes?

Well, the best performing teams had an important cultural difference. Their members were open to admitting mistakes and discussing them with the team. Members of these teams were open with one another and this openness led to a culture of constant learning and improvement. This is how they were getting the best outcomes.

People in these teams knew they could take risks and make mistakes without being ridiculed or rejected. This is the definition of psychological safety- knowing you can take risks and exhibit vulnerability in a team- without being ridiculed or rejected. It is psychological safety which gives rise to creative, innovative, ground-breaking thinking and problem-solving. According to an exhaustive two-year study on team performance at Google, the teams with the highest levels of psychological safety consistently outperform all others.

Why is it important?

In psychologically safe environments, workers are less concerned with managing impressions and image and can spend more time focussed on work.  In a team environment lacking psychological safety, people tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking and worrying about whether they should float an idea or ask a question. Focus then shifts away from work. This clearly has negative implications for team productivity and achievement.

Psychological safety is also important because it cultivates an environment where mistakes are accepted. Why should we encourage people and teams to make mistakes? Because mistakes are imperative for learning. Research by Kornell, Hays and Bjork at UCLA shows that learning outcomes and speed are enhanced when mistakes are made.

Psychological safety also improves team outcomes through minimising self-defensive and self-protective behaviour. Fear of punishment or rejection for sharing a ‘wrong ’idea or doing ‘bad’ work constitutes a threat to the human brain.  When the human brain perceives a threat- psychological, social or physical- the limbic system is activated.  It initiates the fight or flight response, sending adrenaline and noradrenaline coursing through the body and releasing cortisol, which serve to increase heart rate and respiration. When the body is in this super-charged physiological state, determined to SURVIVE, the executive function of the brain is compromised. Problem solving and communication abilities are lessened. Clearly this state of being is not conducive to doing good work. It is thus important to ensure work environments are psychologically safe. When people feel relaxed and accepted in the work place, as opposed to threatened, the executive functionality of their brain is supported. In this state they can think more creatively and be more productive.


How can we improve psychological safety?

We know psychological safety is important, so how can we improve it in our teams?

One of the best ways to improve psychological safety is to model open and accepting behaviour yourself. Here are some simple steps you can take to model good behaviour that promotes risk taking and enhances psychological safety:

  • Openly discuss and admit mistakes
  • Model curiosity by asking lots of questions yourself- this shows others in your team that it is okay to acknowledge the bounds of your expertise, and ask for suggestions or guidance when tackling a new problem
  • Encourage all team members to have input in discussions and meetings. Don’t let a meeting end until all attendants have made a contribution. Reward contribution with genuine thanks and encouragement.
  • Be honest with yourself. Practice being grateful for what you do know and accepting of the notion that your knowledge has limits. The practice of gratefulness helps to maintain a positive self-image and self-esteem. Knowing your knowledge limits will help you be genuinely open to innovative ideas and accepting of help, whether it comes from your boss or most junior colleague.

Amy Edmondson gave a great TED talk where she covers more about how to improve psychological safety. You can watch it here.

We can help

TMS are skilled and committed to helping you foster a psychologically safe work environment and improving the outcomes of your team. Get in touch with us today to find out more about the solutions we offer. Contact us here.

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TMS Consulting