In my college classes, I picked up a habit of being the first to answer a discussion question — not because I was eager to speak, but because I found the silence uncomfortable and knew my classmates were reluctant to answer because they feared being wrong.
Little did I know that my simple act was generating psychological safety in the room.
Coined by researcher Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is defined as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
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It is characterized by empathy for other members in the group, such as noticing when your colleague is having a rough day, and by taking turns in conversation, such as allowing all people in a meeting add their thoughts.
Google identified psychological safety as having an impact on team performance. When their people analytics team first began to research what qualities contributed to a high-performing team, the results were mixed. There wasn’t a strong pattern. For example, a characterization like putting people who are friends in real life on the same team, or mixing together introverts and extroverts evenly was not a positive or negative indicator of team performance.
Teams made up of exceptionally smart members weren’t necessarily winning, either. It turns out, a team that went off-track during meetings and spent time catching up on gossip actually outperformed, according to a group of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T. and Union College.
High-performing groups were making more mistakes than other teams…?
Other industries find psychological safety to be impactful as well. When Edmondson first studied psychological safety through research into medical teams, she found high-performing groups were making more mistakes than other teams — or more accurately, the high-performing teams were reporting their errors and talking about them, enabling collaborative learning in the process.
As collaborating in the workplace grows — by some measures taking up more than 50 percent of an employee’s time — it is important to foster good teamwork culture. Here are three tips to develop psychological safety in your workplace.
1. Encourage Group Norms
As Google found, there isn’t one prescriptive formula to optimal team performance. Psychological safety must develop on the team level. If sharing about life outside work isn’t already part of a team’s norm, it can be encouraged with icebreakers, like having new employees share a fun fact about themselves when they are introduced to the team, like we do at Reflektive.
Public recognition can reinforce good behavior and drive motivation when employees see how their actions impact the business as a whole.
Another idea is to start a team meeting by sharing a risk taken in the previous week. These habits can be unique on the group level and tap into personal identity, making the group a place employees feel comfortable expressing ideas, especially unpopular ones.
Employees looking to build psychological safety on a team they are a member of can take a tip from coach Peggy Klaus, who trains clients to have a “brag” on hand at all times. It could be a recent challenge you recently solved or a project launch coming soon — when you run into a colleague (or your boss’ boss!) in the break room, it’s good to have a short and sweet response to “what’s happening?”
2. Promote Public Recognition
Giving recognition and praise should outweigh constructive feedback. In fact, one reason why giving constructive feedback is hard is because we don’t want to criticize a person who is otherwise doing well. It’s a lot more comfortable if we’ve already been telling that employee where they are performing.
Public recognition is an even greater driver of psychological safety. It can reinforce good behavior and drive motivation when employees see how their actions impact the business as a whole.
When giving recognition, be sure to include specific examples and tie to a company value or business goal. At Culture Summit, Peter Scocimara from Google noted that how goals are accomplished is just as important as what goals are met, due to the prominence of collaborative work. Recognition is what greases the wheel.
3. Encourage Peer Feedback
Technology company Asana says peer feedback can create “a climate that tolerates mistakes and lets people take chances.” With their company value, Balancing or Integrating Opposites, employees are expected to find creative solutions to disagreements, not just compromise.
It’s helpful for team members to request feedback, which puts both parties at ease. Asana also recommends starting a hard conversation with “So, this is going to be awkward” — a direct way to note the elephant in the room!
Peer feedback can take place in bi-annual or annual 360 reviews, but to truly drive learning and development, most workplaces will want peer feedback to happen more often. Making feedback tools accessible helps employees to use them regularly.
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