Can I ask you one thing? Do all your staff feel able to speak their minds without any fear of judgement or ridicule? If the answer’s ‘yes’, then congrats. You’ve achieved the holy grail of business — a workplace with psychological safety at its heart. From my experience as a business coach though, the answer’s much more likely to be ‘no’.
It sounds easy in theory, but building psychological safety takes effort and dedication, often accompanied by a sea change in management thinking. It’s well worth it though. Get it right, and your staff will take more risks, think more creatively and work more productively. The perfect ingredients for business growth.
Google realised this as part of their extensive research into high performing teams, Project Aristotle. They identified psychological safety as the most important dynamic, underpinning every other characteristic. In these teams, there were higher levels of engagement, increased motivation to tackle difficult problems, more learning and development opportunities and better performance.
As MD of three fast-growing businesses, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s a big factor in successful scale-ups. So how do you ensure you build psychological safety in your business?
Prioritise mutual understanding
Sounds obvious, but the foundation of trust is understanding. It never ceases to amaze me how people can work together for years and yet know so little about each other. When I first start working with a client, I get team members to write and share a one-page personal plan.
What you uncover is often staggering. Stories of childhood poverty, health issues, failure at school, aspirations for their own children — any number of things that have shaped the person they’ve become. The exercise delves into the legacy they’d like to leave and their motivations in their job. Sometimes it’s the first time they’ve had to reflect in this way and it brings immediate clarity to how team members are thinking and feeling.
Another exercise is to look at how often their department shares resources with teams outside their functional area to enable the success of other teams. The results are always illuminating. In teams where there’s a high level of psychological safety, they put others ahead of themselves and readily ask for help when they need it. A team may think it’s working well but if this cross-functional collaboration is missing, they still have work to do. Read “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni for more on this topic.
Once teams have a better understanding of each other, encourage them to praise each other or tell each other what they’re good at. In the past, I’ve always taken a strengths-based approach to management. Any weakness is perceived from the standpoint of undermining the employee’s ability to be great. Encourage team members to double down on their strengths and help each other to change any area that reduces personal impact.
Encourage personal responsibility and self-reflection
We’ve all been there. You’re sitting in a meeting and someone really winds you up. It happens all the time. People trigger you and you’re instantly in fight or flight. Your amygdala kicks in, adrenaline rushes into your blood and confrontation is inevitable. Suddenly, any psychological safety you’ve built in the team is threatened.
But it doesn’t have to be. This is your reaction to a situation and you have the power to change it. It won’t get fixed until you own it. And, in the same way, you need all your staff to take responsibility for their own behaviour. By agreeing to take a constructive approach to disagreements and differences of opinion, you can sort these things out without compromising psychological safety. In fact, this will help you build an atmosphere of trust and cooperation.
When we don’t trust each other, we tend to view the other person through a filter where we misinterpret intentions. The person tells a joke, and it’s seen as derogatory. They make a suggestion and it’s instantly dismissed. If this is happening regularly, you need to encourage self-reflection, asking all the team what it is that’s creating this negative reaction. They need to be aware that they’ve gone into fight or flight and become curious about their reaction. Teams can become much more powerful if they take this approach.
In his book, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman demonstrated how people tend to jump to conclusions and double down on things that aren’t evidence-based. When challenged, the reaction is often self-defence and confrontation. But in a team where there’s psychological safety, this happens less often. Because people are prepared to listen, if someone tells you you’re wrong, it doesn’t make you feel like you’re under threat.
And if there are extroverts in the room? Take it from me. They need to shut the f**k up and start to listen! Learning to get comfortable with silence was a complete revelation to me. Now, I use it all the time with clients. People tease me — ‘You’re doing that thing again, Dom!’ Instead of filling the gaps, I stop speaking and it forces them to think about what we’re discussing. If you’re trying to be curious and really listen, you need to pipe down. Take a breath and stop. Think about how you are responsible for getting a better outcome.
Start every meeting with good news
This is a piece of advice I give all my clients. It’s so simple. Decide that you’re going to start every meeting with a piece of good news — and not necessarily about the business! Encourage your team to share something about their life outside work. It’s a great way to get to know them more as people.
And make sure everyone gets a chance to speak — not just the extroverts. In fact, it’s a good idea to nominate someone as a time-keeper, not just to keep everyone on track but also to control any gobby people! If you want psychological safety, you need to ensure everyone’s view is heard and that talk time is equally shared.
Break down barriers
When I faced challenges within teams at Rackspace and Peer 1, I got the conflicted people to move desks and sit together. A great way to break down barriers. It’s amazing the difference a coffee-run and every-day chit-chat can make to team dynamics. Direct contact is key to this. I recently heard that a face-to-face request is 34 times more successful than an email and I can believe it. Proximity and regular, personal interaction are vital to building trust and harmony in a team.
One of my clients, Paul Cosgrove (Chief Strategy Officer at New Signature) has a great solution to conflict. If there’s a major disagreement in a meeting, he tells the two parties to spend time together and work out a joint solution. This forces people to collaborate and sort out their differences without disrupting the rest of the team. I’ve also heard of organisations that send staff out for dinner, or more specifically, tapas. Why tapas? Because you have to share it!
Establish the right rhythm
One of my pet topics! Rhythm is everything in a business and it really can help to build psychological safety. Daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly — set a meeting cycle and commit to it. If your teams are meeting in a daily huddle, they get the chance to share, collaborate and build trust. Nothing deepens relationships better than this regular rhythm, particularly if there’s a focus on sharing good news, mutual support, praise and celebration.
And if you have someone new join the team? This is a time when psychological safety can break down so it’s important to work hard to build them up to the same level of trust. This needs to be noticed and prioritised as part of the regular communication rhythm of the company.
Agree to banish negativity
It’s so easy for corrosive attitudes to set in and spread like wildfire. Us British love a good moan. It’s hard-wired into our DNA and can destroy psychological safety at work. When I was MD at Peer 1, we decided triangulation had no place in the company. From day 1, the senior management team agreed there would be no negative conversations about anyone else unless they were in the room. A zero tolerance approach to negativity. Such a great way to remove bitchy gossip and silence the mood hoovers that can so easily drag an organisation down.
If this is a problem in your company, ensure you start at the top. If a CEO or Executive Team like a bit of gossip, there’s no hope for the rest of the company. For true psychological safety, the organisation needs to be fair and truthful. Honesty, transparency and integrity need to be at the heart of core values.
Show your vulnerability
There’s a natural human tendency to avoid ‘fessing up to mistakes. People fear that their competency will be questioned and trust in them undermined. But to build true psychological safety in a company, its leaders need to admit when they’re wrong and show vulnerability.
One of our values at Rackspace was ‘Bad news first, no surprises’. Customers and staff will always want to know what’s happened if something’s gone wrong. I’ve always felt we should tell it to them straight, no mucking about. Why wouldn’t you do this?
If you constantly put yourself up on a moral pedestal, you’re much more likely to fail. Be human and be vulnerable. Others will respect you more for it and will feel able to admit their own mistakes without fear of blame or punishment.
Psychological safety is a must for any growing business. As Google discovered, it’s the foundation on which high performing teams are built. Once created, it gives staff the freedom to think creatively, take risks and challenge ideas without fear of recrimination or blame — just the types of behaviour that lead to market breakthroughs. But it’s fragile and takes time, effort and deliberate practice before it becomes ingrained.
Written by business growth coach Dom Monkhouse. To receive regular book and podcast recommendations plus articles, business tips other useful information, sign up to his newsletter here.
New York Times article on Google’s Project Aristotle:
“The Fearless Organisation” by Amy Edmondson
“The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni