Creating an Environment Where Teams Can Thrive

There are a number of things that have been shown to help teams work well together: a shared purpose, clear goals, a common approach and accountability. But at the foundation of all of this is a critical ingredient that must be present for a team to thrive – psychological safety.

Psychological safety, a term popularized by researcher Amy Edmondson’s work, is the shared belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk. That notion of a shared belief is important; if you think it’s safe and I don’t, then we have a problem.

When Edmonson was researching teams in a hospital setting, she observed that teams with the strongest relationships made more errors than those teams that didn’t get along well. She was puzzled by this finding; it ran antithetical to what she believed about healthy teams. Upon further investigation, however, she found that the healthy teams weren’t necessarily making more errors but that they were reporting more errors. They felt more comfortable speaking up in front of each other. The teams with weaker relationships, in fact, made more errors but were less willing to report them.

When psychological safety exists, people more regularly speak up, offer ideas, report errors and learn together. Research indicates that psychological safety helps to support diversity and inclusion and leads to stronger employee engagement.

When team members don’t perceive psychological safety, what they experience is more like fear. The feeling of fear is antithetical to healthy teams: it inhibits learning, impairs analytical thinking and can hamper creative problem solving.

Psychological safety isn’t just about being nice. In fact, in teams with psychological safety, they demonstrate a willingness to engage in productive conflict. But this conflict is handled with respect and care for the other person.

When I work with leaders and their teams, we dig into psychological safety. We explore the extent to which it already exists and how we can build it further. Below are some of the topics we examine together.

How can I assess whether we have psychological safety on our team?

If you’re wondering whether your team has adequate psychological safety, try asking some of the following questions:

  • If someone makes a mistake, is it held against them?
  • Does it feel safe to take risks?
  • Do people feel comfortable bringing up problems they’re facing?
  • Do individuals regularly ask for the help they need?
  • Do team members feel they can bring their unique skills and talents to their work?

The answers to these questions can help you diagnose the extent to which safety is present as well as areas that need the most improvement.

What can leaders do to build greater psychological safety?

Leaders play the largest role in establishing and nurturing psychological safety for their teams. According to Edmondson, there are several important steps they can take.

  1. Frame the work: Ensure the team understands the work to be done and why it’s important to the organization.
  2. Invite participation: Leaders should proactively invite others to have voice, emphasizing that there is much to be learn, inviting questions, creating structure to elicit ideas and concerns.
  3. Respond productively: When individuals do speak out about mistakes, concerns or questions, leaders should listen thoughtfully and thank the individual; they should demonstrate that there are no repercussions to speaking out.

There are two pivotal moments that can define safety within a team: the first vulnerability and the first conflict. Leaders who approach these instances with care and encouragement will help their team feel safe with each other.

Can a team establish psychological safety regardless of the environment it is in?

While the best results are seen within organizations where psychological safety is the norm, teams can still establish it locally regardless of the larger environment. This is encouraging news for leaders and their teams.

Psychological safety isn’t built overnight but develops from our actions over time. It’s natural for people to hold back ideas, especially when they fear rejection or embarrassment; psychological safety is the tool that helps draw it out of them. When psychological safety is present within a team, that team can stretch itself to build healthy relationships and achieve higher goals. This foundational element is crucial for team success.

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Coyle, D. (2018) Culture Code: The secrets of highly successful groups. Bantam Books.

Edmondson, A. (2018) The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. John Wiley & Sons.

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