What does psychological safety mean?
My own familiarity with the phrase “psychological safety” started when I read Smarter Better Faster: The Secrets To Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. He references research that Google started on a quest to create a more productive team. The increased discussion of psychological safety illustrates the community’s recognition that there is something wrong and there is desire to elicit change. But, what does that make “psychological safety” other than our latest buzz phrase?
Psychological safety is defined as the combination of trust between coworkers, and an environment in which that trust can be acted upon.
In the healthcare and aviation industries, this is often referred to as “just culture”. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration defines this as, “A culture…that has both an expectation of, and an appreciation for, self-disclosure of errors. A ‘just culture’ allows for due consideration of honest mistakes, especially in a complex system like the National Airspace System (NAS). But even unintentional errors can have a serious adverse impact on safety, and so we must ensure that the underlying safety concern is fixed in all cases.”
Thought exercise: what would a hospital visit look like if patient charts were mixed up? Now, think about what would happen if patient charts were mixed up but a hospital employee wasn’t willing to admit what happened? It is a scary thought and tech is touching more than just healthcare these days.
The thought experiment above encourages you to consider the worst case scenario which is helpful for framing the benefits psychological safety can convey. The tech industry is in desperate need of something to disturb the status quo of unhealthy work environments. Productivity has been in a slump globally and fostering psychological safety could create an environment where innovation can further blossom. I believe psychological safety is foundational in improving workplace relationships and mental health.
Start with building trust
Assumptions in communication can provide a plethora of roadblocks to finding mutual understanding. Before jumping into how we go about building trust, I’d like to set a shared vocabulary (from Emotional Intelligence 2.0) to use for the topic:
- Self-awareness: the ability to accurately perceive your own emotions in the moment and understand your tendencies across situations.
- Self-management: the ability to use your awareness of your emotions to stay flexible and direct your behavior positively.
- Social awareness: the ability to accurately pick up on emotions in other people and understand what is really going on with them.
- Relationship management: the application of social awareness, self-awareness, and self-management to manage interactions successfully.
Establishing trust among peers
Can you depend on your teammates? Trust falls at corporate retreats don’t count. Do you leave a meeting and think, “I’m going to have to follow up with them to make sure that gets done”? Or is there a teammate that dazzles you with their ability to respond to every email they get? The former doesn’t feel dependable and the latter does. Understanding where your loss of trust comes from is one part self-awareness and one part social awareness. This can breed resentment if you feel you have to do extra work just to make sure someone else does their job.
When you no longer feel you can trust your coworkers, productivity and your ability to collaborate breaks down. How can this cycle be disrupted? At an individual level, you can:
- Keep your word — and if you can’t, say it sooner rather than later. Your teammates can help you out if you sound the signal early that you need help completing the work, whatever the reason may be. Knowing earlier will also help them fit this into their schedule in a more optimal manner than if they’d found out at the last minute about this extra task.
- Tell the truth — this doesn’t mean “tough love”. Your perspective of events is not the universal truth and creating a culture of safety requires recognizing that. Truth must be measured by the words we use and not just the message we intend to convey as it may have an impact to the contrary.
- Be transparent — sometimes two different people have two different end goals in mind, especially in collaboration or when it comes to corporate alignment. Be up front. Your teammates can’t read your mind and they certainly can’t help you reach that goal if you don’t tell them what it is.
- Be willing — to help, to mentor, to listen, et al. Don’t do it because of what you can get out of the interaction; do it because that makes someone’s job easier or their day better.
Setting expectations with defined structure and clear responsibility
Pop quiz! If you had to write your job description in 10 minutes, could you do it? You can’t reference the job description you were hired under and you can’t ask for input. Would the end product of this exercise match the job description you were hired under? Chances are this is a challenge and the output wouldn’t match.
If you can’t clearly define what your job description and responsibilities are, chances are that your coworkers can’t either. Teammates and coworkers may have pretty good ideas, but this sets up teams and organizations for assumptions based on non-uniform expectations. How can you hope to build trust based on expectations that aren’t communicated? People managers should work with their direct reports to:
Communicate & enable desired behaviors
Don’t neglect emotional intelligence in favor of performance metrics. Both are important to the success of your organization and/or team. Complement this by tailoring employee assessments to individual behavior. A quiet introvert won’t necessarily respond or improve when told to assert themselves in meetings.
Outline role accountability and discuss expectations
It is possible for two or more people to have one or the same role, depending on what they do. Discuss what work your employee is accountable for and expected to complete. Clear expectations will help your employee have consistent communication and manage work relationships through addressing assumptions their peers may form. It will also help set a shared vocabulary which can be used to discuss progress or difficulties in their role.
Set realistic goals and collaboratively reassess those goals if they aren’t met
Goals should be guided by your employee’s responsibilities. If your employee isn’t meeting their goals, talk to them about it. Not everyone talks about when they feel overwhelmed or when there are personal matters outside of work that may impact their performance. Check in with your employee and exercise social awareness.
Make yourself accessible to employees (not just direct reports) who have questions or concerns
You can’t be everywhere at once and, if you’re managing people, you may have more than one report. When peers have feedback about your employee or questions about their role, make time to listen. You can support your employee by addressing these questions, setting appropriate expectations about their role, or listening to praise (or concerns) their peers may have.
It boils down to building social awareness and helping your employees manage their relationships with teammates. If you feel this list is a little shallow, I would agree, but I don’t feel like I can do it justice in this post. Some great tools exist to support accomplishing these goals such as the RA(S)CI model and SMART(E) goals.
The story of company culture
Clarity is more than a well-written job description; Gallup has found that it also depends on employees understanding how their work aligns with the organization’s mission and business goals.
Another thought exercise: can you give your company’s 30 second elevator pitch? Toyota, as an example, focuses on vehicle safety as their ultimate goal. That sounds pretty compelling to a consumer: you may prefer cars that help me stay safe on the road. As an employee, you could consider that the marketing we are doing should always support that ultimate goal. It can have a different primary message, but that “Safety” message should be present. As an engineer, you would know your KPIs will focus predominantly on the safety of what you design and why your performance is measured that way.
Start telling a strategic narrative. Company leaders should support this narrative with great stories of what is happening within the organization and not just their own team. Talk about successes and how teams within the organization came together to accomplish the bigger picture. Employees can anchor against this and better understand the value of their work and the work of their teammates.
This is (hopefully) the first of a three part series. In the next two parts, I’d like to cover what to do when a crisis or event arises and how to reconcile these ideas with a pre-existing culture. They will focus on the second portion of creating a psychologically safe team by discussing strategies and considerations for the working environment.
Special thanks to Pascal Z., Claire D., and Lindsey for all the help editing and reviewing. 💖