March 8, 2019
Psychological safety is the interpersonal dynamic in which each team member feels encouraged and empowered to share ideas and insights proactively, without trepidation or worry about negative judgment or disparagement.
On psychologically safe teams, individuals feel valued and respected. They encourage each other to share ideas, even risky or far-flung ones, which can provoke meaningful discussion and widen the team’s perspective on challenges and opportunities.
Careful consideration of the evidence demonstrating the power of psychological safety could persuade business leaders to find practical ways to bring it into the workplace. However, infusing workplaces with a culture of psychological safety is challenging. How might leaders ensure that psychological safety permeates team interactions?
Coaching and training programs that focus specifically on psychological safety for teams, and managing one’s own emotions, to cultivate psychological safety may help. Such programs may be delivered internally by HR professionals and talent development specialists. External coaches and trainers also may teach and guide teams to nurture psychological safety.
Either way, the training programs themselves ought not to be strictly didactic, but actually model the behaviors they champion. There is no better way to learn how to promote psychological safety than to practice it in vivo, alongside the very team members with whom workers interact on a regular basis.
Experiential learning is most stimulating and impactful. Leadership development programs and team coaching sessions can be designed specifically to foster a culture of psychological safety. They call on each team member to allow themselves to experience a modulated degree of vulnerability (the importance of which has been described by Brené Brown in Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead). This can serve to bind the team together on an emotional level and to facilitate creative and strategic conversations.
“Active Inquiry” exercises are particularly effective in developing psychological safety among team members. In such exercises, the participants may be given the task of having one-to-one conversations that include only thought-provoking, open-ended questions (as well as periodic clarifying statements) intended to enable a deep dive into sensitive issues.
In some cases, the Active Inquiry conversation can take place in front of the whole group, followed by discussion among team members. In other cases, team members break out into dyads for the conversations followed by a large group debrief about the Active Inquiry sessions. Team members are first taught how to restrict themselves to asking questions that foster dialogue and making facilitative statements that clarify the topic and ensure mutual understanding.
When people learn to promote this kind of nonjudgmental exchange about a salient topic, they tend to relax and speak their minds freely, without fear of reprisal or denigration. This is true of the person asking the questions and the one responding to them. Many people find the exercise surprisingly difficult, because they are so accustomed to giving advice or direction rather than asking open-ended questions and listening carefully to the responses. But when we don’t discipline ourselves to ask good questions and reserve judgment until we receive potentially informative responses, we can stifle the psychological safety that is so necessary for high-quality team performance.
Psychological safety relies on wide-open dialogue, expression of emotion, and brainstorming. But it should never become a messy free-for-all. Team leaders must create structure around the dialogues. Respectful expression of one’s thoughts and feelings is essential, especially considering that hot-button issues are often in play. Leadership development programs and executive coaching can help team members modulate their emotional expression and optimize their communication style. Certain kinds of mindful breathing and self-reflection exercises can enhance team members’ capacity to regulate their emotions and thereby foster psychological safety.
There is growing reason to believe that enhancing psychological safety in the workplace is the key to improving quality of life and fueling corporate growth in the 21st century. Rigorous training and coaching programs can serve a supportive role in shifting corporate culture toward embracing psychological safety, which very well may be the single best guarantor of workplace success for individuals and teams alike.