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Four steps to building the psychological safety that high-performing teams need today

Struggling to spark strategic risk-taking and creative thinking? In the post-pandemic workplace, teams need psychological safety more than ever, and a new analysis by Amy Edmondson highlights the best ways to nurture it

Published: Jul 26, 2023 01:23:54 PM IST
Updated: Jul 26, 2023 01:31:53 PM IST

Four steps to building the psychological safety that high-performing teams need todayPsychological safety is literally mission critical. You no longer have the option of leading through fear or managing through fear. Image: Shutterstock

Perks like remote work or unlimited vacation time might be nice, but when it comes to true fulfillment in a post-pandemic workscape, psychological safety is essential.

Harvard Business School Professor Amy C. Edmondson coined the term “team psychological safety” in the 1990s to describe work environments where candor is expected and where employees can speak up without fear of retribution. When employees feel psychologically safe, they’re empowered to iterate and take risks—leading to better team performance.

The idea went mainstream in 2012, when Google’s Project Aristotle identified psychological safety as a key component in successful teams. Edmondson says the theory took on more urgency as organizations faced uncertainty and complexity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Psychological safety is “literally mission critical in today’s work environment,” Edmondson says. “You no longer have the option of leading through fear or managing through fear. In an uncertain, interdependent world, it doesn’t work—either as a motivator or as an enabler of high performance.”

An explosion of research on the topic has offered new insight into how best to create psychologically safe workplaces, detailed in a new analysis by Edmondson and Harvard doctoral researcher Derrick P. Bransby that distills insights from 185 research papers.

Psychological safety is maturing as a research area at a key time for businesses. During the pandemic, leaders had to be nimble, candid, and transparent; employees were expected to respond in kind. Psychological safety was essential, whether for hospital workers candidly reporting (and learning from) errors or for employees feeling comfortable setting work-life boundaries during lockdown.

When workers stayed silent due to feeling unsafe or undervalued, disaster struck: Consider the spectacular implosion of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration after it came to light that people were concealing the number of nursing home deaths to play down the pandemic’s toll.

The authors identify four research-backed steps that leaders can take to cultivate psychological safety among their employees. When properly understood, focusing on these four areas can boost team performance and work culture across industries, says Edmondson:

Also read: Psychological safety is more about 'us' than 'me': Amy C Edmondson

Encourage teams to bond through day-to-day tasks

It’s hard to be effective without knowledge-sharing, teamwork, and shared decision-making. These require an element of interpersonal ease. People who feel psychologically safer work better in teams because they can share information and be transparent. And the very act of being productive—just doing the work together—becomes a feedback loop that can bond a team and help create the conditions for psychological safety.
“Uncertainty and interdependence are attributes of most work today. And, therefore, without an ability to be candid, to ask for help, to share mistakes, we won’t get things done,” Edmondson explains.

After all, very few jobs are performed alone, and in a world where remote work is on the rise and teams are far-flung, that sense of trust and camaraderie is fundamental.

For instance, a study of frontline hospitality workers in Turkey showed a direct effect on performance from a psychologically safe environment that encourages workers to learn from their errors. Another study found that a psychologically safe workplace especially enhanced outcomes and performance for minorities (though workers of all races benefited).

Normalize opportunities to learn from mistakes

Edmondson refers to them as “learning behaviors.” It might be as simple as organizing a team meeting to understand why something went wrong and gleaning lessons for next time.

“It doesn’t sound terribly scientific because, in a way, it isn’t. But learning behaviors are usually discretionary, somewhat effortful, and potentially embarrassing. They bring interpersonal risk. Saying, ‘I need help. I’m not sure what to do here,’ is a learning behavior,’” Edmondson explains. It might be awkward, but speaking up in this way often leads to better outcomes, Edmondson says, whether it’s a hospital that names and then reduces errors or a company that streamlines processes by innovating together to find better ways to manufacture vaccines.

Ensure that all people feel ‘seen’

Edmondson didn’t always think about workplace culture: In the 1990s, she was initially concerned with work processes—but, as it turns out, successful work processes are driven by engaged workers. The employee experience is having a moment.

“It used to be: How do we get the work done? But nowadays, there’s just as much interest in: How are people doing? And what the research finds is that psychological safety is one good predictor of more positive work experiences,” she says.

The researchers found that psychological safety is greater when people feel authentically seen. As a result, employees tend to feel less stress and strain. It also fosters a sense of inclusivity, particularly for workers who have been historically marginalized in the workplace.

Also read: Think different — sometimes. Teams succeed when they balance creativity and focus

Seek input with humility and openness

Psychologically safe leaders are willing to be vulnerable.  

“In a nutshell, it’s about making honest statements that make clear that you value others’ voices: ‘We’re going to need all the ideas that you have,’ or, ‘This is an incredibly challenging procedure. Please speak up as soon as you see me doing something wrong.’ It’s about inviting voices in an ongoing way, explaining why you legitimately care about what others see and think,” Edmondson says.

They also ask questions: What do you think? Do you have an idea?

“This is designed to give someone that small but all-important platform to respond. You’re automatically making it safe to speak up. By asking good questions, you’re saying, ‘I value your voice,’” Edmondson says.

Finally, good leaders don’t get angry if the response isn’t what they want to hear.

“Don’t shoot the messenger. Don’t get angry when you hear a dissenting view or bad news. In a volatile, uncertain, complex world, there will always be bad news. If there’s no bad news, remind yourself: It’s not that it’s not there. It’s that you’re not hearing about it,” Edmondson says.

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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