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The Power of Psychological Safety

Updated: May 30, 2020

Why Psychological safety?

Organizations who invest in building a culture of values and behaviors that develop and support Psychological Safety within their organization, such as Google, Microsoft and Marriott are far more effective at being adaptable, innovate, collaborative, and resilient in times of change and crisis.

Psychological safety is an organizational and social condition in which each all employees have a need to feel: Included, safe to learn and develop themselves, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo, without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished.

In fact healthy organization reward challenging the status quo versus penalizing.

Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard first introduced the construct of “team psychological safety” and defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Taking a risk around your team members may sound simple. But asking a basic question like “what’s the goal of this project?” may make you sound like you’re out of the loop. It might feel easier to continue without getting clarification in order to avoid being perceived as ignorant.

The 4 stages of psychological safety developed by Timothy R. Clark Oxford University Social Scientist, is a natural developmental model, a set of progressive stages in which employees progress as each level of need is met within an organization.

When teams, organizations progress through the four stages, they create deeply inclusive environments, accelerate learning, increase contribution, innovation, trust and high performance.

Why do organizations such as Google and Microsoft stand by psychological safety?

The answer is simple they recognize three main principles:

  1. Its people are its major assets of the organization.

  2. It drives, collaboration, innovation and adaptability which equates to Resilience and employee experience.

  3. It creates Superior Customer Experience as a consequence of creativity, innovation and meeting client needs.

Why develop people to Challenge the Status Quo?

Developing people to challenge the status quo without fear of retribution or the risk of damaging their personal careers, standing or reputation, develops self empowered individuals who not only speak their truth, it develops creative adaptation and idea creation called: Constructive dissent.

Organization don't need is an echo chamber, homogenized thinking, and groupthink. They don’t need employees to conform and yield to blue conventional thinking and bow to those with positional authority. They don't need autocratic orange leaders, and they dont need consensus driven low action green teams, they need yellow thinking that defines roles as functions , builds inclusivity, a journey for all to bring their value to the organization, contribute to the whole and challenge and innovate, ultimately enabling the organization to thrive and grow.

To measure a team’s level of psychological safety, Amy Edmondson from Harvard asked team members how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the following statements:

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.

  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.

  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.

  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.

  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.

  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.

  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

In her TEDx talk, Edmondson offers three simple things individuals can do to foster team psychological safety:

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.

  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility.

  3. Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.

Google Project Aristotle

A case in point is Google’s Project Aristotle, proved that IQ points and money don’t necessarily produce results—but psychological safety does.

After studying 180 of its teams, Google found that smarts and resources can’t compensate for what a team may lack in psychological safety. In fact, the company landed on psychological safety as the single most important factor in explaining high performance.

Microsoft’s The Art of Teamwork

Microsoft own study called The Art of Teamwork and came to the same conclusion.

Their Art of Teamwork Guide reminds us that “Team members who feel safe are better able to take interpersonal risks. This allows them to bring their full selves to their work, which in turn sets the stage for innovative ideas to flourish.”

What are the benefits of developing Psychological Safety in organizations?

Psychological Safety Fosters Ownership

When psychological safety is high, people take more ownership and release more discretionary effort, resulting in higher-velocity of learning and problem-solving. They feel safe to speak up.

When it’s low, people don’t muscle through the fear. Instead, they shut down, go into a fight or flight pattern, and redirect their energy toward risk management, pain avoidance, and self-preservation.

“Making the decision to speak up against a toxic culture is one of the most difficult decisions employees may face in their careers.” Celia Swanson VP Walmart

As Psychological Safety Grows, Creativity Thrives

Analyzing its massive database of more than fifty thousand skills, LinkedIn conducted a study to identify the most important soft skills in organizations that create purposeful, adaptable and resilient organizations. their findings that Relationship, Creativity, and Self Accountability and Empowerment are the most critical skills of any leader and employee.

Each of us protects our creativity under emotional lock and key. We turn the key from the inside out, when it’s safe to do so. Without psychological safety, there’s little chance of us fully realizing our full potential and the benefits we can bring to an organization.

An open climate of psychological safety allows organizations to circulate local knowledge from the bottom of the organization to the top to increase their adaptive capacity. But that’s not all: it also empowers people to be curious and creative. That’s what Google and Microsoft know, and why they obsess about it.

Complex challenges require productive Psychological Safety for Partnering and teamwork to exist

Teamwork is critical for solving the challenges the world faces today, to build resilience and become positioned for success, teams need to establish and foster healthy dynamics. The first step is understanding what these dynamics are, and then learning how to nurture them within your organization, culture or teams.

Microsoft's Art of Teamwork articulates the core elements that influence team dynamics. This help teams harness their diversity, build trust, and drive innovation.

Harnessing the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety adds value to the larger organizational culture without disrupting current team processes.

In a letter to employees, Satya Nadella CEO of Microsoft, expressed the importance of Psychological Safety and the path to inclusion, and innovation.

"In hypercompetitive markers, innovation is the lifeblood and survival of our organization and the mainspring of growth, thus Microsoft leaders in the twenty-first century must be able to thrive in times of uncertainty, drive collaborative inclusive teams, develop team members to contribute based on the essence of their knowledge, their value of what they bring to the work place, create a space to challenge each other for something greater with intention to develop a creative innovative spirit within our workplace".

Please share your thoughts, be inclusive to others in the discussion, share your knowledge, contribute to the discussion and challenge the thinking.
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