Creating psychologically safe workplaces is critical for high-performing teams says facilitator and coach, Kylie Lewis
Ensuring psychological safety at work is not just the right thing to do, it's becoming the law. Under Australia's Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws, people running a business must eliminate or minimise psychosocial risks so far as is reasonably practicable.
As a result of this and the rise in interest in wellbeing post-COVID, psychological safety is a hot topic amongst executives, leaders and HR teams. They understand how making people feel safe and wholly accepted at work directly affects their wellbeing, engagement, and productivity.
Ahead of our 2024 events with none other than organisational psychologist Adam Grant - Adam Grant LIVE: WorkLife Reimagined - let’s look at psychological safety and the learnings from our popular masterclass led by Kylie Lewis.
Certified Dare to Lead™ facilitator, Kylie Lewis returned to Growth Faculty with a masterclass to help organisations understand why cultivating psychologically safe workplaces was a critical step toward building a high-performing team, with content based on the works of Amy Edmondson.
"I think there's a lot of latent untapped talent because people are not making it psychologically safe enough to get that talent and put it to good work." - Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School
Why psychological safety?
We’re collectively experiencing volatile, unsettling, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) times of global disruption where our traditional day-to-day experiences – commuting, working, socialising, attending school or gyms – were all pushed inside.
While inside these small places and with nothing but time, we have been forced to look inwards. To look at what we value, how we show up in our daily lives (and at work), and the support we need to feel safe, navigate change and thrive.
2022 MIT research into psychological safety in the workplace by Sull, Sull & Zweig and the top predictors of attrition during the great resignation revealed: “a toxic culture is 10.4 times more likely to contribute to attrition than compensation”.
From the same research, a toxic culture was highlighted as one that is disrespectful, non-inclusive, unethical, cutthroat and abusive and is 45% driven by leadership.
Yet, more than 90% of North American CEOs and CFO’s believe that improving their corporate culture would boost financial performance.” And “more than 80% also acknowledged that their organisations culture was not as healthy as it should be”.
So that’s the organisational impact, but what about the impact on us as human beings?
The research also revealed that “Toxic workplaces impose serious and lasting harm on affected employees. Workers who experience the elements of a toxic culture are more likely to suffer from greater stress, anxiety, depression and burnout. They are also 35% to 55% more likely to be diagnosed with a serious physical disease.”
What is psychological safety?
Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”.
While Timothy Clark, author of "The Four Stages of Psychological Safety" (below) describes it as “an environment of rewarded vulnerability”.
- Inclusion Safety: I am worthy, I belong and I feel safe to be here
- Learner Safety: I’m growing, it’s safe for me to be a learner, I can ask questions and I can show up and not have all the answers
- Contributor Safety: I am making a difference somewhere where it’s safe to contribute my ideas, vision, hopes and dreams
- Challenge Safety: Here it safe for me to challenge the status quo and help to fix what’s not working
Author of Dare to Lead, and past Growth Faculty speaker Dr. Brene Brown often talks about psychological safety, explaining “Vulnerability is risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure.”
In its simplest terms, psychological safety means having our human needs met in the workplace.
How a lack of psychological safety shows up in the workplace
Have you ever experienced the following at work?
- Felt excluded in a social setting
- Been afraid to ask a question
- Remained silent when you knew the answer to a question
- Had the credit stolen for something you did
- Been ignored in a discussion
- Been rudely interrupted in a meeting
- Felt that you were the target of a negative stereotype
- Faced retaliation for challenging the status quo
- Had a boss who asked for feedback but really didn’t want it
- Been publicly shamed or made fun of
- Been punished for making an honest mistake
- Been made to feel inferior
In research by LeaderFactor, 55% of survey respondents reported that at least one of these things had happened to them in the prior 24 hours.
As a result, we’re now seeing this new trend of quiet quitting, where employees no longer feel like they should put up with these toxic cultures and reduce the effort they put into their work.
Kylie asked our audience how they showed up at work when they didn’t feel psychologically safe, or when there was a toxic culture and answers included:
- Felt silenced
- Closed off/shut down/gave up
- Withdrawing/avoiding talking
- Fearing for my job
- Feeling judged
- Wasn't my real self
- Felt disillusioned
- Felt lost
- Stopped trying
- Feeling anxious and burning out
When asked to describe the characteristics of their leader(s) from the same example, their responses included:
- Favourtism/holding secret meetings
- Talking a lot
- Judgemental/making negative assumptions
- Not listening, not empowering
- Made crazy decisions
Returning to Donald and Charles Sull’s research for MIT; “..leadership consistently emerged as the best predictor of toxic culture. The importance of leadership will surprise no one, but it does underscore a fundamental reality: Leaders cannot improve corporate culture unless they are willing to hold themselves and their colleagues accountable for toxic behaviour.”
Turning again to our masterclass attendees, Kylie then asked them what it felt like to be part of a great team. Answers included:
- Empowered and inspired
- Supported and valued, and the work flows easily
- Acceptance and belonging
- Energised and felt good about themselves
- Motivated and productive
- Encouraged to have healthy debate
- Ideas and creativity flowed
- Fun, positive and safe
- Went above and beyond what was asked
- Shared, challenged and had fun!
And the characteristics of leaders where there was psychological safety?
- Brought out my best game
- I was trusted
- Had very good Emotional Intelligence
- Open to ideas
- Really listening
- Approachale, listening, encouraging
- Inclusive and offered opportunities
- Kept us informed and encouraged
In The Fearless Organisation: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth author Amy Edmonson explains that psychological safety can exist in one team and not another and that it’s possible for pockets of toxic culture to exist where the leaders are modeling the negative behaviour described above. It’s important we scan our entire business to identify where the problems exist.
Where an organisation is fearless, and psychological safety exists there is:
- Inclusion and diversity. When team members feel included, they are more inclined to speak up, contribute and add to the group
- Willingness to help. In safe teams, people are willing and able to help each other and feel appreciated by team members
- Attitude to risk and failure. Teams learn from mistakes and adapt; they take risks and continue making forward momentum
- Open conversation. A team that has open and candid conversations can tackle hard problems better
3 blockers to psychological safety
Kylie referenced three high-profile cases where the employees didn’t feel they could speak up or provide feedback and were actively discouraged by leaders from doing so:
- A fear of being viewed negatively
Volkswagen – False reporting of emissions by programmers
When the company was finally found out for manipulating and cheating emissions tests, known in the media as ‘Dieselgate”, employee’s reported experiencing “A reign of terror and a culture where performance was driven by fear and intimidation”.
- Feeling as if they don’t have enough experience
Nokia - Leaders didn’t want to know about changes happening in the industry
The success of Nokia with the invention and acceleration of the mobile phone was on an upward trajectory until circa 2008 when its leaders didn’t want to hear about market trends… leading to the brand’s rapid decline. Of the company’s leader, one employee said “It was very difficult to tell him thinks he didn’t want to hear…” and, “They wanted good news rather than a reality check”.
- Feeling that the organisation’s hierarchy is intimidating or unsupportive
NASA – Space shuttle Colombia disaster
The engineer who first spotted parts breaking off from the shuttle upon take-off felt the power difference between himself and the leader of the mission was too great, despite the risk this posed to the returning astronauts and future missions. “I just couldn’t do it (speak up in the meeting). I’m too low down and she is way up there”.
A lack of psychological safety poses dangerous consequences for organisations through deadly silences, avoidable mistakes, underperformance and low utilization of capable resources. And as we are seeing in today’s talent market… high attrition.
For the individuals caught in the crossfire, the impacts are even worse, causing anxiety, depression and even loss of human life.
Ask yourself, how safe is it in your business for you to tell leaders what they don’t want to hear?
Psychological safety and high-performance
In times of turbulence and stress, it’s the quality of the relationships with our colleagues with whom we’ve built trust through vulnerable conversations, empathy, connection and care that get us through.
Whether it’s during marketing campaign planning, ideas workshops or strategy development, an overwhelming 88% of our masterclass participants agreed that higher-performing teams produce more errors, not less, than underperforming ones.
Because they were comfortable taking risks, making mistakes and getting things wrong.
In a high-performing team with high levels of psychological safety, people collaborate and learn in the service of high performance to get complex and innovative work done. This is where we all want to be.
Try these 10 tools to foster psychological safety
The leader’s job is to create and nurture the culture your team needs to do their best work, anytime you play a role in doing that, you are exercising leadership.
Here are Kylie’s 10 tools to experiment with in your workplace to foster psychological safety.
1.Learn the language of psychological safety and invite airing and sharing
In team members and individuals, it could sound like this:
- We’ve got some new information we’d like to share
- Something’s been troubling me. Do you have ten minutes to talk about it?
- Some of this is not good news. Is this an okay time to dig in?
- I mentioned the problem to the team and we’ve got some ideas
- I’ve hit a roadblock/ I’ve got to go back to square one/ I’ve made a mistake
- We tried an experiment, and it didn’t go as expected
- There’s been an uptick in X, and we can’t explain it yet
- I’m not sure who to approach for this kind of thing/ the level of detail you like to hear/ what’s the best procedure for bringing up a concern
- Let me recheck that for you, it should only take a minute
- We need another pair of eyes. Best to spend a minute/hour/day/week on that now
- I don’t feel right about this. Can we do a hard stop right here?
In leaders and managers, it sounds like this:
- This is totally new territory for us, so I’m going to need everyone’s input
- There are many unknowns/ things are changing fast/ this is complex stuff. So, we will make mistakes
- Okay, that’s one side. Let’s hear some dissent/ who’s got something to add/ lets have some give-and-take
- Lucy, you look concerned. Giles, you haven’t said much. Adrian, what are you hearing in your department/ calls/ from customers?
- What assumptions are we making? What else could this be/ could we investigate/ have we left out?
- What are you up against? What help do you need? What’s in your way?
- Did everything go as smoothly as we would have liked? What were the friction points? Are there systems we should retool?
- If you’ve got something to add, just… (mention alternative channels of communication)
- Thank you for that clear line of sight.
- I really appreciate you bringing this to me. I’m sure it wasn’t easy.
2.Use these questions to measure levels of fearlessness in your team
- If you mistake on this team, it’s not held against you
- Members of this team are able to bring up tough issues
- People on this team are not rejected for being different
- It is safe to take a risk on this team
- It is easy to ask other members of this team for help
- No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised
3.Lead from the front
Don’t come to work in your ‘armour’ or put on a show. As humans we are hard-wired to seek connection, which can only happen when we are truly ourselves.
Kylie encouraged us all to be more like the news reader whose kids interrupted a live broadcast while he worked from home during the pandemic and just be our authentic selves!
4.The leaders toolkit for building psychological safety
Set the stage – shared expectations and meaning
- Frame the work: Set expectations about failure, uncertainty and interdependence to clarify the need for voice
- Emphasize purpose: Identify what’s at stake, why it matters and for whom
Invite participation – confidence that voice is welcome
- Demonstrate situational humility: Acknowledge gaps
- Practice proactive inquiry: Ask good questions and model intense listening
- Set up systems, structures and processes: Create forums for input and provide guidelines for discussion
Respond productively – orientation towards continuous learning (= high performance!)
- Express appreciation: Listen, acknowledge and thank
- De-stigmatise failure: Look forward, offer help, discuss, consider and brainstorm next steps
- Sanction clear violations: Clarify boundaries and hold accountable without shame or blame
Kylie recommends businesses accept that there is always more to learn and promote it, “We never arrive at a destination”, to create an exciting workplace.
5.Set up a team agreement
Kylie recommends making risk-taking the norm! Talk about your experiments, what you’re trying, what you’re learning – this is vulnerability.
To do so, give teams a guide for what they should be shooting for, and decide on it together.
At Google, teams say that having a framework around team effectiveness and a forcing function to talk about these dynamics had been missing previously and is by far the most important part of cultivating psychological safety.
- A 10-minute pulse check on their five dynamics of teamwork; psychological safety, dependability, structure & clarity, meaning and impact
- Installing a new group norm – kicking off every team meeting by sharing a risk taken the previous week
Red Hat took to Miro to document their ways of working, which everyone on the team signed. It includes best practice examples, prompting questions, and sharing of team news.
Similarly, teams at Atlassian leverage Trello to document instructions for teamwork, brainstorm ideas, agree on next steps as a team, and bench ideas that aren’t working or aren’t appropriate right now but they want to come back to!
6.Get comfortable being uncomfortable
Psychological safety is not the absence of discomfort; it’s being able to navigate discomfort in a different way. “If we avoid conflict to keep the peace”, Kylie shared, “then you start a war inside yourself”.
One leader she referenced calls these difficult conversations with her team “Carefrontations”. If you’re struggling with this with your team, try these conversations starters:
“I care about you / I care about your development and growth / I care about your wellbeing / I care about your reputation, your impact and the value of the work we’re doing together…
… to have this conversation. This is my intention.”
Leadership is our duty of care with one another, otherwise known as a ‘rumble’ to quote Dr. Brene Brown” said Kylie, whom herself is a certified Dare to Lead facilitator.
Read more about vulnerability and how to rumble in a previous summary of Kylie teachings “10 Barriers to a Courageous Culture based on Brene Brown’s research”.
7.Create safe spaces
According to the Ethics Centre, there are 2 kinds of safe spaces required in the workplace.
In safe from spaces
- People are safe from threats to their wellbeing
- These include spaces where they know they will be safe from prejudice intolerance, racism, sexism, discrimination or trauma
At Western Sydney University, their safe from spaces include a Women’s Room women-identifying nd non-binary students, staff and visitors. Their Queer Room “is a safe place where all people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, or otherwise sex and/ or gender diverse can relax in an accepting and inclusive environment.”
In safe to spaces
- We can express ourselves authentically and engage in good faith with others around difficult, controversial and even offensive topics
- Safe to spaces are necessary to help us engage with, and reduce long-term harm from a lack of psychological safety
In practice, for a safe to space to work, it needs a different set of norms that enable people to speak, and listen, in good faith.
At Pixar, their production teams safe to space or ‘Brainstrust’ as it is known follows the following guidelines:
- It’s made up of a group of colleagues that have expertise and empathy (peer to peer)
- The Brainstrust has no authority (the Director can take or leave the feedback)
- Give and take honest, specific notes (candor)
- The all share each other’s success
8.The Fear Conversation
In this exercise, participants are invited to table what they are explicitly afraid of and encourage an environment where this fear can be discussed and hopefully, dispelled.
Leaders should take the lead and normalise the behaviour by sharing their fears first and helping to overcome some of the things which stop us from doing great work.
An example could be a sales director:
- Fear – Losing a big sale
- Mitigation – Sales team weekly meetings to highlight risky opportunities
- Target Norm – If we lose a sale, we know we did everything we could
9.The User Manual of Me
To foster Inclusion Safety, our 1st stage of psychological safety, Kylie suggests inviting teams to create and share their own personal user manual which can include:
- I’d describe myself as…
- I do my best work when…
- My current working patterns are…
- I prefer communicating in these ways…
- When I’m stressed, the best way to support me is…
- These are same things going on outside of work which are useful and helpful for you to know…
- Others say that I’m…
This tool is particularly effective when managing hybrid and remote teams.
10.Have a Failure Party
To encourage Learner Safety, Kylie recommends coming together as a team and uniting them through learning either in a separate cohort or by adding it as an agenda item to an existing meeting.
Share what you’re learning, share past mistakes, ask for help from those of lower status, share your personal learning goals, help team members set their own goals and reinforce your learning potential.
Kylie’s final advice for leaders and teams - Experiment and practice!! Not all of these tools will work for you or your team, however, normalise taking a chance!
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Note: This article was updated May 10 and September 14, 2023