Let’s Get Pragmatic About Psychological Safety

Catarina Kakko & Karen Jones, July 2021

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you didn’t ask a question, because you didn’t want to look stupid?
Have you ever done things at work without questioning why it has to be done in a certain way?

This was common for many people, across the globe, in a large logistics company until a day in June 2017. The company was hit by a massive cyber-attack that broke down all the IT systems forcing the company to return to pen and paper.

How do you manage your customers and their goods when all visibility is gone?

In this situation there were no rules, processes, or hierarchies working, no one was more entitled than another and every idea was welcome. At the same time something interesting happened within the culture – where employees had very seldom questioned processes and regulations, they were now coming up with ideas, testing them, often failing, to then try again until it worked. It became psychologically safe to speak up, indeed, it was seen as a gift to do so.

What do we mean by Psychological safety?
According to Wikipedia, it’s the ability to ‘show up’ as one’s self, without fear of negative consequences for self-image, status, or career. It can be defined as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected. It is also the most studied enabling condition in group dynamics and team learning research.

But why is Psychological Safety so important in current times?
Change is constant- in order to transform we need to take a dive into the un­ known, to take risks. To take risks, you need to feel that you will be ‘held’, even if you fail. If you do fail, then learning will occur rather than blame & shame. In many organisations today, the digital transformation is faster than ever, but at the same time, the competitive advantage often lies in how to balance technical transformation with human interactions. Digital tools will make life easier for customers, but when there is a challenge; they want to meet a human being ready to serve them, someone who is empowered to take a smart risk in the name of customer service. Psychological safety is closely aligned to a company’s capacity for creating change and the extent to which the environment allows for risk-taking, confronting brutal facts, and challenging how things get done. Any company that has a culture that is described as threatening and fearful, will put their ability to be agile and innovative at risk. A company’s ability to create a safe environment for employees, as they try to implement priorities, can be impaired if their sense of empowerment, team orientation, and process for agreement is unclear.

How do I, as a leader, know if I have a culture of psychological safety?
How do I know if my organisation feels safe or not for my team? How do I know if they are prepared to take smart risks? This will be more likely if you have created a supportive climate, one that enables:

  • Failure to be seen as an opportunity for learning and improvement.
  • Innovation and appropriate risk to be encouraged and rewarded.
  • New and improved ways to be continually adopted.
  • Flexibility and ease of change.
  • Different parts of the organisation cooperate to create change.

For any change process, there is often a lack of clarity in the ‘Why’. Why are we making this change? If employees are going to be engaged and motivated in any change they need to know the change story – why is this change important now? How does this change connect and drive company purpose? What part of the strategic plan does this change address, and what are the short-term goals that we should measure in order to assess if the change is on track. Do people really understand how this change will impact their own job?

For ownership to be felt, people need to receive information about the change or request in order to make informed decisions. Those impacted need to have input into the process. How often do we really clarify the decision-making authority people involved are actually being given? Change is also less likely to happen if essential skills to implement the change are missing.

How well do we build involvement into our processes’?

  • Does everyone believe they can have a positive impact?
  • Is information widely shared so that everyone can get the information they need when it’s required?
  • Is teamwork used to get work done, rather than a hierarchy?
  • Do people work like they are part of a team?
  • When disagreements occur; do we work hard to achieve “win-win” solutions?
  • It is easy to reach a consensus, even on a difficult issue

We need to be considering our capacity to empower, build strong (autonomous and sustaining) teams and reach agreements that have commitment behind them.

The change required often comes from our ability to listen well to the market, our customers, and our people. Change is rarely facilitated without ‘horizontal wisdom and awareness’. Are people considerate of the unintended consequences their planned change may have on others? It is important to know who are the key stakeholders and involve or at least inform them. as we work through the changes. Change can bring conflict, so are we in agreement on the need to change and how will we resolve issues when they occur? How do we implement the change in relation to our Core Values and can we create a sense of connection to personal values and the difference people want to make in the world?

Being able to understand how your employees would honesty answer the above could allow a more proactive approach to change management that puts culture at the center of what you are trying to do.

The easiest way to figure it out is to run a simple survey, asking your team members:

“How confident they are that they won’t be criticized if they admit an error/mistake?”

You can create a simple quick survey using a tool like Microsoft Forms to ask these questions to your team members. This will also help you get a temperature check on the current status of where your team is at in terms of Psychological Safety. Here is an example of that type of questionnaire:

Sample questions:
On a scale from 1 to 6, how much do you agree to the following questions (1 Fully disagree and 6 is Fully agree):

  1. In this team, it is easy to discuss difficult issues and problems
  2. We often take time to figure out ways to improve our team’s work processes
  3. It is easy to ask other members of this team for help
  4. In this team, people talk about mistakes and ways to prevent and learn from them
  5. People in this team frequently coordinate and cooperate effectively with other teams to meet company objectives.

What can I, as a leader, do to foster psychological safety within the culture – especially during transformation/time of change’?
Psychological safety is not only something you create as a leader, it is equally important for each team member to feel psychologically safe towards each other.

Here are some tips on what you can do to foster a psychologically safe environment in your team.

  • Speak from your human heart to theirs. Be open and share your vulnerability/doubts to build trust and model the behaviour that is desired from all team members.
  • In your next team meeting, try to explore the things that team members have in common. Discovering how we are similar rather than why we are different can build empathy and compassion. As a leader, be prepared to share what brings you joy and motivation whilst being open about the things/experiences that you find more challenging and hold more fear for you personally.
  • Approach conflict within the team as a method for collaborating rather than opposing.
  • Ask them “How can we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?”
  • Ask the team to think about a time when they and a colleague had opposing views that led to a lengthy discussion and where they still did not agree to a solution.
  • Ask them to reflect on how they could have handled that discussion differently by incorporating the question, “how can we achieve a win-win outcome in that situation?

Here are some tips on what you can do as a leader when working with your team members:

1. Prepare for difficult conversations:
Let’s face it, being a leader means that you sometimes need to make unpopular decisions, give negative feedback, etc. It’s not easy, but if you prepare well the outcome is likely to be better. Think about the situation from their point of view before you go into the meeting;

“What are the possible objections and how would I respond to those counterarguments?”
Prepare the conversation by imagining it beforehand. Imagine that you have to implement a new process that you know will be met with objections. What could those objections be and why? Think about the top 3 concerns the team might have and how you can respond to each of these constructively – write it down

  • What do you want to say to them?
  • How might they respond and what might cause this reaction?
  • Think about each possible scenario and how you could respond to each.

2. Trust is key- trust in you as a leader as well as to and between the team mem­bers.
Trust is crucial to building psychological safety. If there is no trust in the team, how can you expect people to ask difficult questions and to take risks? To get some great tips on how to create trust, we recommend reading content marketer Han­nah Price’s blog³.

3. Ask your team to give feedback on you
After your next team meeting, try to ask one of your team members for their feed­ back by using any of the following questions:

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

4. Make failure a learning process
Trying and failing at something is never fun for anyone, but the fact is that when we learn from our failures we get stronger, and we will eventually achieve the results we want. Unless you as leaders expressly and actively make it psychologically safe to fail, people will automatically seek to avoid failure. If you make it a habit to talk about it, you can grow as both individuals and as a team, learning from each other’s failures to enable collect success.

5. Try to make failure “cool and safe.”
As a leader, you need to lead the way and talk about your failure first. This will not only show that failure is OK, but also that you are human and vulnerable, just like your staff. Here are some ideas that we’ve seen teams do across the globe:

  • Have a “Failure of the week” item on the weekly huddle – remember to go first.
  • Create a “Wall of failure” where people can stick up post-it notes where they have described their failure and the learning gaining through it.
  • Give a “Heroic Failure” award to employees that take ambitious risks and fail.
  • Hold an “Idea Funeral” sharing lessons you’ve learned and saying goodbye to the idea or project.
  • Keep track of the record of failures, so learning does not get lost.

This article came about when we connected on LinkedIn and discovered we had a common interest in psychological safety and culture. Catarina comes from a stronger customer-centricity perspective, while Karen comes from the organisational culture viewpoint.

We invite anyone else to join us in this discussion to widen the debate on how best to make Psychological Safety tangible and pragmatic for teams and leaders.

Please contact us if you wish to engage further, via LinkedIn or our emails:

Catarina Kakko – catarina.kakko@maersk.com
Karen Jones – kjones@denisoncultureeurope.com

  1. For further reading see Amy C. Edmondson the fearless organisation. 2019. Wiley.
  2. If you wish to learn about Organisational Culture and how to diagnose your current state, utilizing these statements we have shared please see https://denison­consultingeurope.com/
  3. https://blogJostle.me/blog/ways-to-build-trust-at-work
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