One of the reasons I love working with my clients is that we often share the same values. They have a genuine desire to build great organizational cultures where people are able to do their best work and collectively make an impact on the world around them. They are constantly looking for ways to develop themselves and the organization. This makes my job so much easier because we have common ground to build on.
Something I’ve noticed in my work with these organizations is that the leaders are usually familiar with trending organizational development terms like the importance of vulnerability or transparency, and are open to making them a part of their culture, but figuring out how to go about actually doing so can be a challenge.
I’m sure you can relate to that too. There are many ideas out there that sound good in theory, but there’s a lot less talk about how to translate them into your everyday business reality.
This is what we work on with my clients, and in this article I’d like to share my thoughts with you on one such concept: psychological safety.
Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School, the original researcher of the subject, defined psychological safety in teams as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
It’s easy to grasp the importance of psychological safety if you think about what the lack of it feels like.
If employees don’t have the confidence that it’s safe for them to speak their mind or take calculated risks, what will follow is a lack of new ideas and constructive feedback, issues falling through the cracks, and stagnation.
On the other hand, if people are confident in voicing even half-formed or crazy ideas, sharing suggestions for improvement, and making deliberate choices on their own without fear of negative consequences, that’s fertile ground for innovation, greater efficiency, and higher revenue.
Do any of the following experiences sound familiar?
If you or your team have experienced any of these, you might be dealing with issues related to a lack of psychological safety in your team.
What I find useful for understanding how to foster psychological safety in organizations is to first talk about culture. Much like psychological safety, culture is one of those concepts that can seem intangible or even fluffy.
A simple way to think about it is that organizational culture is the sum of behaviors and attitudes people exhibit when interacting with each other, partners, clients, and anyone else who comes into contact with the company.
So if you want a culture where going the extra mile is valued, how does this show up in your everyday interactions? For example, if a client asks you to do something, do people start to complain or do they take the opportunity to delight the client with their work?
If you want transparency and honesty, and someone challenges your favored solution in a meeting because they believe it isn’t the right way forward, will they be immediately dismissed or praised for speaking up?
In my first workplace we had a value called freedom through responsibility. And I really loved that because it meant that we were encouraged to make our own decisions, and also that making those decisions came with being accountable. If something went wrong, we were able to be honest and say “I did this to the best of my knowledge, I thought it would work and it didn’t” without fear of punishment. This, among other things, allowed the company to have a culture where people are able to take ownership and aren’t afraid to try new things.
When it comes to fostering psychological safety, you should ask yourself the same question as with culture. How can I connect this to the ways people interact with each other every day?
Psychological safety is created by addressing underlying fears
If we turn it around, psychological safety means a lack of fear. In Edmondson’s words, it’s “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.”
To help people cultivate this confidence, I believe it’s vitally important that you first get to know their specific fears, and that the team gets to know each others’ fears.
What makes it feel risky for someone to share negative feedback? What are they afraid will happen if they bring a completely new perspective to an issue?
If you know these things and are able to recognize when they show up for people, you have a chance of creating an environment that puts their mind at ease, where they are able to thrive.
So how do you learn about people’s fears?
Simply asking them might not work, since talking about things like these could feel like an interpersonal risk in itself. People might not even be consciously aware they have certain fears, so they could have trouble articulating them.
If you’ve read my article on why most communications training programs fail, you might’ve already guessed what I’m going to say next. To get to know the fears that are present in your organization, you have to learn about defensiveness.
The three most common fears people have
In Radical Collaboration, we say there are one (or more) of three fears behind why people get defensive: fear of not being important, fear of not being seen as competent, and fear of not being likable (respected, accepted).
When I ask training participants to recall the last time they got defensive and identify the underlying fear, they can tell me without exception which of those three got triggered.
This is a huge realization because it helps people understand that they didn’t get defensive because they were attacked by the other person, they got defensive because they are unconsciously afraid of something.
Gaining this self-awareness makes it possible for them to start noticing defensiveness in other people and to start thinking about how their own behavior might trigger these fears in them.
This is important because the next time someone starts rambling endlessly after his idea was rejected, you can remind yourself that what he is actually doing is trying to prove his competence. If you realize this, instead of giving more reasons for why his idea won’t work that might make him even more defensive, you can act in a way that eases his fear and stops the situation from escalating.
I recently saw a beautiful example of this in a workshop, where learning about defensiveness helped participants to identify the main reason their team was having trouble collaborating effectively.
There was one person on the team with a very strong personality, while the rest of the team was much more reserved and operated in different ways than him. In meetings, the scene that usually played out was him trying to get people to speak up in ways that triggered their defensiveness, so they would fall silent. This in turn caused him to get defensive and come on even stronger, and the cycle continued.
For him to realize that his behavior generated fear in the others was a huge step. And it’s not that he was a bully who deliberately shamed people or anything like that. His style could have worked perfectly with another team with different personalities. But in this case, he needed to be able to see that if he wanted collaboration to improve, he would have to find a different approach.
If your aim is to create more psychological safety in your organization, exploring the roots of defensive behavior is a great source of information.
To be able to create a safe environment, you first need to go down to the individual and team levels and get to know the fears that are standing in the way.
You can do this by:
Following these steps will help you create a culture without fear of interpersonal risk-taking.
I also want to give you specific examples of what you can do with this information, so let me share some of the things one team came up with after learning about defensiveness:
These are just some of the action points the team came up with based on their specific context, but I hope they can give you some ideas of your own.
I also hope they show that fostering psychological safety in your organization truly starts in the everyday interactions of people, and that it’s not as complicated or intangible as it first may seem.
Once your team learns to look at hard, uncomfortable, or frustrating situations through the lens of fears, they will be able to start taking personal responsibility for creating the opposite of that. This is how you build psychologically safe cultures, one interaction at a time.
If you would like to start the conversation on psychological safety and defensiveness in your own organization and need help figuring out the best way to do so, send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s talk it through.