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Creating Psychological Safety in High Performing Teams

In the history of management thinking, Amy Edmondson’s leadership study, on frontline manager nurses in a hospital in Boston revolutionised our understanding of high performing teams.

Prof. Edmondson was looking at a variety of factors including the assessment of leaders by their teams and the team’s overall performance. However, she found something odd. She found that the leaders who had the highest respect scores from their team of nurses also reported the highest mistake rates. And the leaders that were less respected by their team had lower rates of mistakes.

In trying to understand the reason for the counter-intuitive correlation, Prof. Edmondson discovered the reported mistake rates didn’t necessarily mean mistakes were not occurring in the teams with lower reported rates. Instead, high performance teams and well-respected leaders reported more mistakes because the team felt psychologically safe to do so. On the teams led by less respected leaders, the nurses were actually hiding their mistakes rates due to the fear of punishment.

This study was a starting point for all of the research on the importance of psychological safety in teams. Researchers find psychological safety and its elements in almost all high performing teams. Small teams, large teams and even in Google’s ground breaking Project Aristotle study which sought to identify the characteristics of the highest performing teams, psychological safety is almost always present.

Prof. Edmondson describes psychological safety as an environment of mutual trust and respect, where people feel safe to take risks, safe to admit their failures, and safe to fully express themselves.


For leaders looking to develop psychological safety in their teams, these 5 areas will help.

1. Ensure conflict is treated as collaboration

A great starting point to create psychological safety on teams is to treat conflict as collaboration. But first, it is important to recognise there are different types of conflict.

  • Type 1: Person-based conflict. Interpersonal incompatibility or differing perceptions negatively impact team dynamics. These need to be dealt with as soon as possible and resolved quickly.

  • Type 2: Task-related conflict (also known as cognitive or substantive conflict). This involves differing ideas about how to perform a work-related task or make a work-related decision. Examples include debates over the appropriate strategy for handling a project or varying views about how to allocate scarce resources. This is positive if seen as collaboration. Providing opportunities to harness diverse perspectives, knowledge, skillsets, and experience. Developing a culture where the aim when two people disagree, is for each of them to learn something.

As a leader, encouraging your people to positively stand up for their ideas, can mean true benefits are gained from a diversity of ideas. With resulting solutions leading to better products and services.


2. Learning from Mistakes

Secondly, celebrating mistakes as an opportunity for learning. Nelson Mandela, famously said "I never lose, I either win or learn". However, that mindset does not seem common in business. Many leaders see failures as a waste of time or resources. But the way to make sure your people don’t actually waste anything is to make sure they take the time after a failure to reflect and find the learnings. The culture created by leaders in many teams embeds the wrong mindset. Self-aware leaders recognise the value of empowering their people to take more risks, with the knowledge that it’s okay to fail. Highly psychologically safe teams believe that the only thing that’s not okay is to hide mistakes and deprive others on the team of learning the valuable lessons too.


3. Constructive Dissent

The third method to create psychological safety on teams is to encourage constructive dissent. Often being a great leader means knowing when to let go of your ego. The leaders that demonstrate psychological safety and support their people to reach their potential are comfortable with dissent. When someone on a team disagrees with you, it doesn’t make you less of a leader. It means you’re facing two opportunities.

Either you get to see another perspective, or you can explain your perspective and instruct your team. In fact, many times both situations are happening at the same time. But, if everyone on your team is always agrees, it means you’re potentially facing two dangerous situations. Either you’ve got a team where few people think creatively, or you’ve got a team where everyone is afraid to speak up. I think it’s safe to say most of us have been in both situations and sometimes, they occur at the same time. When was the last time someone on your team disagreed with you and is it time to encourage a bit more constructive dissent?


4. Develop open mindsets

To break free of judgment and strengthen the relationship between team members, it’s important to have an open mindset. Often we look at things through our own lens or worldview, but approaching situations and problems from a different angle can help bring perspective. To develop an open mindset in your teams you can:

  • Encourage teams to share feedback

  • Help them learn how to respond to input from others

  • Rather than criticism, encourage teams and individuals to see feedback as a way to strengthen and build upon their ideas and processes.

When it comes to high performing team cultures, the research indicates three key ingredients:

  1. strong mission and vision that helps to drive clarity for people in their roles;

  2. individual values align with the company's values; and

  3. the prospect of personal and professional growth.


5. Model the behaviour you want see

The final method to create psychological safety on teams is to authentically display civility in the workplace. Most employees report observing or receiving uncivil behaviour from colleagues. And the number one reason uncivil behaviour happens on a team is because the team leader isn’t modelling civility.

Uncivil behaviour destroys psychological safety, and many leaders don’t fully realise the impact of their actions. A great way to discover more about yourself is to complete workplace behaviour and emotional intelligence assessments. Having a clear understanding of your behaviours is a fantastic first step in building your self-awareness. This knowledge can then be used to recognise behaviours in others and adapt accordingly to ensure your interactions are as productive as possible. Developing self-awareness about your own behaviours will empower you to demonstrate civility, and consistent modelling of those behaviours will positively impact your team and improve the levels trust and respect.

Building a climate of trust and respect over time creates a culture of psychological safety and the embedding of high performing mindsets in your team members.

For more information on how to improve your self-awareness and the performance of your team feel free to contact us.

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