Psychological safety is a crucial component of any organization’s culture. Psychologically safe organizations are free to create, discuss, disagree, take risks, and make mistakes. These organizations are often the ones we see as key innovators in their unique industries. In other words, cultivating a culture of psychological safety is paramount in order to succeed.
However, fostering psychological safety can be difficult, especially during this time where many organizations have pivoted to remote work with little to no preparation. And this trend is here to stay, with several organizations such as Twitter and Square allowing employees to work from home permanently. So what can we do to make sure our teammates feel secure even while socially distanced?
First, let’s see what psychological safety entails.
Extreme pressure doesn’t always craft diamonds. Sometimes it creates a substandard work environment that halts innovation in its tracks. Harvard Business Review contributor Laura Delizonna writes “The brain processes a provocation by a boss, competitive coworker, or dismissive subordinate as a life-or-death threat. The amygdala, the alarm bell in the brain, ignites the fight-or-flight response, hijacking higher brain centers.” Some people function well under this stress. However, for many this isn’t a sustainable environment. Instead, innovation often flourishes under kinder circumstances.
In her article, “High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It,” Laura writes “Twenty-first-century success depends on another system — the broaden-and-build mode of positive emotion, which allows us to solve complex problems and foster cooperative relationships.” Under these circumstances, “We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe. Humor increases, as does solution-finding and divergent thinking — the cognitive process underlying creativity.”
To foster these positive emotions, team members and leaders will want to incorporate these practices into both their remote and in-office day-to-day operations.
Twenty-first-century success depends on another system — the broaden-and-build mode of positive emotion, which allows us to solve complex problems and foster cooperative relationships.
With your team scattered and no longer a short walk away from your desk, it can be easy for doubt to creep in. People simply become the owners of projects, the accomplishers of to-dos. You may find yourself wondering if your teammate will meet that deadline, or be online when it matters most. However, this thinking doesn’t support psychological safety. Instead, we need to make sure to give our team members the benefit of the doubt, even when there’s failure, and speak to them human to human, even if you can’t do it face to face.
Forbes contributor Karlyn Borysenko writes, “If you want to cultivate a psychologically safe experience for yourself, make sure you are giving that experience to others liberally! Offer help and resources, even when it's outside of your job description, celebrate victories with them and be there to remind them that failure is just one step towards success when things don't work out.” By offering this gesture of trust to others, they will in turn trust you. This mutual trust is the foundation for psychological safety.
This is most critical during times of failure. When your service goes down, it’s easy to begin doubting yourself and others. However, we must remember that each person is responding in the way they think will be most helpful during a particular situation with the information they have. In short, everyone is trying their best and is deserving of the benefit of the doubt.
That being said, disagreements are inevitable. Even the best teams must occasionally deal with confrontation, and how we handle this largely dictates how safe our teammates feel. In Laura’s article, she writes “Underlying every team’s who-did-what confrontation are universal needs such as respect, competence, social status, and autonomy. Recognizing these deeper needs naturally elicits trust and promotes positive language and behaviors.” In moments of conflict, it’s crucial that we recognize our humanity and fallibility and talk out our disagreements in compassionate, understanding ways. While we can’t do this in the same room, we need to make the time to do this synchronously. Slack or email is not enough. Hop on a Zoom call with the person you disagree with. Turn on your camera. Look them in the eye while you work things out.
We need to make sure to give our team members the benefit of the doubt, even when there’s failure, and speak to them human to human, even if you can’t do it face to face.
During this unprecedented time, it can be easy to eschew innovation and stick with what we know. After all, risks are scary. However, innovation can be a path to a more productive and efficient way of working, and teams must embrace this. To fully commit to innovation, teams need to feel psychologically safe enough to take risks and fail.
Two ways to encourage this are through creativity and curiosity.
Outside-of-the-box thinking is the harbinger of forward momentum in any industry. It’s important to motivate all team members to harness their creativity, as it's a great source of untapped potential. To do this, we can look to Pixar’s five strategies that promote creativity:
Blame kills psychological safety. If teammates are afraid of being called out or shamed for making a mistake, they will be unlikely to jump in and assist with high-pressure situations in order to preserve their own pride. This can lead to cloudy incidents, poor retrospectives, and a toxic he-said-she-said culture. Instead, we should focus on shifting our mental state away from blame and towards curiosity.
Laura’s article notes “The alternative to blame is curiosity. If you believe you already know what the other person is thinking, then you’re not ready to have a conversation. Instead, adopt a learning mindset, knowing you don’t have all the facts.” If a teammate makes the wrong call during an incident, it’s important to approach their decision with curiosity rather than blame.
Stating the problem factually, engaging the person about it, and asking for a solution can help make confrontations seem non-accusatory. And, as Laura puts it, “The people who are responsible for creating a problem often hold the keys to solving it. That’s why a positive outcome typically depends on their input and buy-in.”
In an interview with Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, she spoke on how managers can foster psychological safety within teams. She stated that there are three main parts to ensuring psychological safety: set the stage, ask for input, and respond appreciatively.
Creating psychological safety within organizations can be difficult, and is even more challenging as organizations are adopting to remote work. However, this is a crucial time to double down our efforts to foster psychological safety. This will increase speed and efficiency of communication, spur innovation, and create a healthier work environment for team members.
Especially during this crisis, it’s important to make sure our teammates know that they are safe and appreciated. By offering the benefit of the doubt and speaking to people human to human, encouraging creativity and curiosity, and following Amy’s advice on empowerment, we can work together to make sure that we’re standing strong and creating a company culture that we can all feel proud of.
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