Measuring psychological safety
A quick, simple and interactive team exercise
What is psychological safety?
At Elsevier, our of our top priorities is to develop an inclusive culture built on trust, collaboration, & purpose. To achieve this, we need an environment where people feel psychologically safe.
Psychological safety is super important if you want to foster the right conditions for high-performing teams. Indeed a Google study found that it was by far the most important factor underpinning team effectiveness:
Taking a risk around your team members seems simple. But remember the last time you were working on a project. Did you feel like you could ask what the goal was without the risk of sounding like you’re the only one out of the loop? Or did you opt for continuing without clarifying anything, in order to avoid being perceived as someone who is unaware?
In teams with a high level of psychological safety, there is a culture of inclusion. People feel safe to speak up, to offer ideas, and to ask questions.
Conversely, in a team with a low level of psychological safety, people are not comfortable speaking up and/or feel that there may be consequences if they question things.
But how do you know if people in your organisation feel psychologically safe? How do you measure psychological safety in your team(s)?
How I measured psychological safety in my team
In order to understand if people in my team felt psychologically safe, I asked team members 7 simple questions: the 7 questions Amy Edmondson used in the study where she introduced the term “team psychological safety”.
I asked team members how strongly they agreed or disagreed with these statements:
- If I make a mistake in this team, it is held against me.
- Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
- People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
- It is safe to take a risk in this team.
- It is difficult 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 utilized.
To do this, I used the online tool Mentimeter. I chose the “scales” presentation type and added the 7 statements to the presentation template. I used a scale of 1 to 5, where “strongly disagree” was 1 and “strongly agree” was 5. Mentimeter then gives you a unique code for your presentation.
I ran the exercise during an offsite meeting. I introduced the concept of psychological safety and explained how it linked to other concepts we had explored together as a team. I then asked people to use their phone/tablet/laptop and go to menti.com and gave them the unique code for the presentation I had made.
When they visited the website, they were asked to enter the code and then asked the 7 questions. Once I knew that everyone had submitted their answers, I showed our results on a large screen.
The results for each question show the average score for the team, how many people have voted for each option (from strongly disagree to strongly agree), together with a visual of the spread of answers.
We then discussed the results, and we used that discussion as a basis for reviewing our team principles.
Questions to think about in advance
This exercise deals with a number of sensitive subjects — eg you might be asking people to share feeling excluded, rejected, or unvalued. So the exercise itself is best done in a psychologically safe space. If you’re thinking of running it with your team(s), I suggest you think about a few questions in advance:
- Who will facilitate the exercise? The team leader, a team member, an HR colleague, or an external facilitator? Are they experienced with handling this sort of exercise?
- How will you create the right conditions/environment in the room to discuss your results? The discussion could be very sensitive, so what guardrails will you have in place to set expectations and support people (eg a set of principles, rules of engagement, or a “safe space agreement”)?
- How will you facilitate the discussion if your scores show that people feel a lack of psychological safety?
- How will you facilitate the discussion if the majority of people score one way on a particular question and there is someone whose score is an outlier and very different from the rest?
- How will you protect respondents’ anonymity?
- How will you ensure that no-one is singled out?
I wanted everyone to answer the questions independently, without risk of bias/influence from seeing how other people had answered them. I mitigated the risk of this by not showing any of the results on the large screen I was using until I knew for certain that everyone had answered all the questions.
Everyone’s experience is personal. They will each have their own perception of what constitutes psychological safety and their own comfort level. It is important not to single anyone out for honest responses.
If you get a low set of results, you might have interpersonal issues within your team between colleagues. If you get a set of weak results, you can use this exercise as an opportunity to discuss the concept of psychological safety. Simply talking about it is a great way of raising awareness and can help to break down barriers. If you want to go further, check out Jean Lambert’s team exercise on creating safety. You could move straight on from your results to running that exercise.
Ensure everyone has a device that is connected to the internet. If you’re in a different building from normal, know the wifi code. (Might seem obvious, but still…)
Things I’d do differently next time
The questions deliberately include a mix of positively and negatively worded statements to mitigate response bias. This is great from the point of view of ensuring the survey’s validity. However, it does make the survey quite complicated: 1 is not always a negative answer (indicating low psychological safety) and 5 is not always a positive answer (indicating a high degree of psychological safety). Next time, I would be clearer with people in advance that they need to read the questions particularly carefully.
Whilst I was careful not to show results on the large screen, some people continued to explore the Mentimeter website after they submitted their answers. Next time, I would ask people to close the website/browser/window as soon as they have finished answering the questions in order to enure that they cannot see results on their personal device.
- Building a psychologically safe workplace, TED talk by Amy Edmondson
- How to foster psychological safety on your teams: 28 tips from Google to help create team environments where everyone can contribute
- Of course psychological safety, but how? A collection of over 50 methods/tools/practices different people have used to maximize the level of psychological safety in their organization, curated by John Cutler
- High-performing teams need psychological safety. Here’s how to create it, Laura Delizonna in the Harvard Business Review (includes a link to a longer — 24 question — survey that measures psychological safety)
- Creating safety retrospective, by Jean-Pierre Lambert
- Make Your Meetings a Safe Space for Honest Conversation, by Paul Axtell in the Harvard Business Review, April 2019
As I was digging around the internet, looking for other things to read on psychological safety, I came across this article by Martijn van Asseldonk, which says pretty much what I’ve just said above. I was surprised, but I’ve decided to publish this piece anyway, even though I realise that it’s not original. The more people who learn about this stuff, the better. And if this post ends up helping someone feel more psychologically safe, then that’s a great result. (FWIW Eva Offermans has also written an article on how to measure and grow psychological safety in teams, using a slight variant on Amy Edmondson’s questions.) A long time ago, I wrote my PhD on Andre Gide, and I’m reminded of something he wrote:
“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since nobody listens, everything must be said again.”