Thriving Teams #3: Psychological Safety

It can be difficult to define what makes someone feel confident or at ease within their team. Some argue that a happy team is a productive team, while others say the opposite is true. In my years’ long pursuit of staff wellbeing and satisfaction, I’ve often leant towards autonomy, trust, and opportunities to collaborate as key factors contributing to healthy culture and team work.

In the last 12 months, I’ve read Amy Edmondson’s The Fearless Organisation, Dan Cable’s Alive At Work, and Andy Swann’s The Human Workplace, with all three titles advocating safe, open-minded workplaces that allow people and teams to flourish and succeed. It was in these books that I began to understand the concept of psychological safety as a tool for wellbeing, but also a necessity in productive, thriving teams.

So far in this blog series I’ve covered what makes a team, followed by team purpose and goals. So, given that we now know how to create a team and give it direction, it’s now time to explore how we can create and lead other enabling conditions for successful teams, starting with psychological safety.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is a trusting behaviour that is defined as the team’s shared belief that it is safe to take interpersonal risks without fear of backlash (Edmondson, 1999). In other words, the team members have a collective understanding that they are safe to express themselves, to try things out, and to fail. Amy Edmondson has conducted many studies about psychologically safe teams, and the impact of those on the team’s morale and productivity.

One study by Julia Rozovsky looked at which teams at Google performed best, and analysed the teams’ hobbies, backgrounds, friends, traits and more – no trends emerged as to why some teams performed better than others. And then they looked at psychological safety, and everything fell into place. Even Google’s brightest, sharpest performers needed to be within a psychologically safe team in order to thrive (Edmondson 2019).

Psychological safety is not just a ‘nice to have’ or a box of biscuits, or even a reassuring smile. It raises standards in teams, with Edmondson’s studies finding that it increases candour, mutual respect, and trust. A psychologically safe team is a conducive environment to set ambitious goals and work towards them together. Put simply, having high standards and high psychological safety is a winning ticket, and natural combination, to help a team truly thrive.

As social beings, we tend to conform, and desire acceptance; we work out early in life how to avoid interpersonal risks. At work, we may avoid asking questions in order to look more competent, or may avoid challenging a colleague because we don’t want to be branded as someone who causes trouble or rocks the boat. Edmondson finds that the best teams create cultures of openness and curiosity, where staff are encouraged to question, report errors, and discuss the risks of failure – failure is considered an inevitable step in the journey, not as terminal. The team knows that their interpersonal risks are low when they belong to this team, and their inhibitions lower so that they can perform to their potential.

According to Salas et al, ‘it is critical that organizations, team leaders, and teammates create environments where psychological safety can flourish and be a mechanism to resolve conflicts, ensure safety, mitigate errors, learn, and improve performance’ (Salas et al, 2018).

How to build psychological safety

Building genuine psychological safety isn’t as simple as being a friendly face and letting people do as they please. It’s important to note that psychological safety isn’t just being nice to people or having low expectations about work; it is not letting things go to avoid a tough conversation.

Here are three prominent features of a psychologically safe team and their leaders:

Candour constructive feedback is essential to psychological safety. In The Fearless Organisation, Edmondson cites Pixar and their ‘Brain Trust’ process, in which groups evaluate projects at early stages, and give constructive, impersonal feedback. The expectation is that all projects will need a lot of work and feedback to begin with – it is natural, anticipated, and celebrated. It’s important to ensure that leaders and team members are both comfortable to ask for feedback, and understand that it is vital to team growth and productivity. Netflix seem to do a good job here, too, as they ask employees to create memos to be shared openly across teams, so that they can gain constructive feedback from the outset of an idea or project. There will be a whole blog post on feedback and candour later in the series!

Freedom to fail – building on candour, it’s important to create an environment in which failure and fear are uncoupled. Where the emphasis is on failure not being something to avoid, but a natural part of learning and exploration. The team’s mindset needs to be solution-focused, with no blame culture. If the team has clear, purposeful goals, as discussed in the previous blog post, then any failures along the way are just steps to navigate. These failures can also become galvanising moments for group discussion and collaborative problem solving. It reminds me of playing Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Megadrive with my brother in the 1990s – the fiendishly difficult final levels were like a Rubik’s cube to be discovered and puzzled over; every time Sonic met his doom we’d gasp (or cackle), return to the drawing board, and plan our next line of attack. 25 years on, those ‘strategy meetings in the bunker’ are some of my favourite memories. In High Challenge, Low Threat, Mary Myatt discusses how to earn trust within a team by saying ‘I think you can do this’, and ‘I’m here to talk things through’ if things don’t go according to plan (Myatt 2016).

Be a don’t knower – leaders need humility – they should admit what they don’t know, ask questions, and trust those around them. ‘Leaders who are willing to say ‘I don’t know’, play a surprisingly powerful role in engaging the hearts and minds of employees. In Adam Grant’s fantastic Think Again (2021), there is a great anecdote about introducing more psychological safety at the Gates Foundation, and the huge relief of employees when Melinda, who staff couldn’t usually get an emotional read from, announced that she goes into a lot of meetings where there are things she doesn’t know. The staff felt safer in the knowledge that their seemingly perfect leader had gaps in her knowledge, and was brave enough to admit it.

In Dr Kulvarn Atwal’s The Thinking School, he advocates a model of ‘high challenge, high trust’, whereby his staff work relentlessly for the benefit of the children, within the context of open dialogue, high autonomy, and a huge amount of collaborative work. Staff are encouraged to provide feedback to leadership, and then even more so to lead on projects and initiatives. Inviting staff to contribute isn’t a form of weakness, it encourages diverse thinking, loyalty, and greater staff buy in. Having visited the school myself, I saw how staff are encouraged to burst in with an idea, knowing that Kulvarn will talk it through with them (always asking first how it will benefit the children) and give them the chance to try it out and then evaluate.

Atwal cites research (including his own doctoral work) and interviews which suggest that teachers value working together in groups, as an effective and empowering form of development. In his school, Atwal’s staff gave me many examples of how they had split off into groups to work on research projects, joint planning, and similar, with trust and autonomy being the wind in their sails. It has made me rethink how schools can foster collaborative work across different teams, focused on curriculum planning, research projects, extra-curricular activities, student learning… the list could go on, but as Atwal says, it will develop a positive culture and high investment from staff. From what I saw, this created effective psychological safety across his staff body.

Action points for teams and team leaders:

Returning to Amy Edmondson’s work, she sets out three ways to introduce psychological safety into your team.

  1. Set the scene: when working with your team on a project or set of work products, begin by clarifying the nature of the work, and acknowledge how failures along the way will be ‘currency’ for growth. In other words, be clear about purpose, but also admit that there will be challenges.
  2. Invite participation: it’s important for leaders to admit that we don’t know all the answers, and to engage the team with this process and or project as a joint-learning opportunity. Jurgen Klopp (from 4.30 in the video) speaks particularly well about this when he discusses working with experts within his team whose knowledge he invites and must draw upon to be most effective. Fundamentally, leaders should acknowledge they are not, in fact, omniscient, and encourage open communication and feedback across the team, while also asking the team open questions.
  3. Respond productively: as the project or process takes shapes, results will begin to appear. The work is in motion, and it won’t always go well. This is the opportunity to listen carefully, acknowledge and welcome those who flag up errors or possible improvements, and destigmatise failure.

How I’ve incorporated some of these ideas into a team I lead:

A team that I am very proud to work with is the group of Heads of Year and Assistant Heads of Year across our school and sixth form. I’m by no means a perfect leader, and I certainly don’t hold all the answers. My main priority for our team work is that they have a clear understanding of what we are working towards –both overall vision and day-to-day, operational targets – and that they feel completely safe within the team, knowing that  feedback, thoughts and reflections will be welcomed. There are a few methods I’ve used to develop this culture, although I must admit that the personalities across the team are particularly conducive to working together and pulling in the same direction.

Firstly, I like to ask the team their views and input on just about everything. Yes, I will outline my particular vision for a project and present the standards I think we should work towards, but those goals are often contributed to by the team. Asking the team questions and genuinely listening to, and acting upon, their suggestions is a key tenet of our team culture – they know that they have a voice, and are valued. Adam Grant (2021) advocates the use of ‘how do you know?’ as a question for any member of a team to ask; as a tool for asking a non-judgmental question that mixes curiosity with a desire to know more, and I try to model that sort of tool for others to use.

I also believe that the team will achieve greater psychological safety through learning and growing together. Every fortnight, I hand out some reading relevant to our roles (leadership, culture, pastoral work, mental health), and, two weeks later, we review that reading at the beginning of our meeting. Our meetings always begin with learning, discussion and sharing. In December, the team all selected a book, we bought them, and they will share their reading and learning from these books on a rota during our next 12 meetings this year. It’s this tangible sense of learning and developing as a team that makes us feel safer to ask questions or give feedback to each other.

In the last 12 months, we have launched a new pastoral curriculum; this has been exciting and purposeful, and we are beginning to reap the rewards. It also felt like stepping into the unknown. In the early planning sessions, we talked a lot about the potential of this curriculum, what we wanted from it, and some of the issues we might face. Key to these reflections was that these challenges would be both inevitable, and would always have a solution. We stepped into the hard work of the pastoral curriculum not expecting ‘results’ but a process; this means that when we review our provision, which we do and will need to do regularly, we aren’t peeking between the gaps in our fingers as we cover our faces in nervous anticipation, but that we embrace and celebrate the direction, opportunities and challenges.

Concluding thoughts:

In Putting Staff First, Jonny Uttley (and John Tomsett, 2020) provides the Education Alliance’s Ethical Leadership Qualities: Competencies and Behaviours. Here is a link to that framework. If all leaders aspired to these behaviours – including categories such as trust, wisdom, kindness, service – their teams would enjoy a strong sense of psychological safety and likely become productive and successful. This would be a good piece of work to discuss with leaders at your school when considering what sort of behaviours and values the organisation demands from its leaders and staff.

It’s invigorating to note that there is a plethora of evidence to suggest that psychological safety and trust in teams is not just about wellbeing, but also fundamental to the success of a team. Objectively, we must work as hard at this as we do on our other goals and metrics for success.

I’d like to finish with a wonderful quote from Mary Myatt, whose words I cannot hope to improve:

‘Top leaders create a safety net, where it is OK to make mistakes. There are no recriminations, only discussions about what might be better. A psychological safe space is the crucial element of creating trust. And a sense of humour, which means that nothing needs to be taken seriously. Because, after all, (mostly) this isn’t brain surgery, and no one is going to die’ (Myatt 2016).

Thank you for reading and following so far.

Sam

References

Atwal, K (2019) The Thinking School. John Catt, Woodbridge.

Edmondson, A (2009) Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly.

Edmondson, A (2019) The Fearless Organisation. Wiley, Hoboken.

Grant, A (2021) Think Again. Viking, London.

Myatt, M (2016) High Challenge, Low Threat. John Catt, Woodbridge.

Salas, E., Reyes, D., McDaniel, S. (2018) The Science of Teamwork. American Psychologist.

Tomsett, J., Uttley, J. (2020) Putting Staff First. John Catt, Woodbridge.

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