Psychological safety—the ability to safely express ideas, take risks, and make mistakes—has been widely recognized as a key attribute for successful team collaboration in all kinds of workplaces, from the NFL to a writer’s room at Comedy Central, along with more typical office settings.
Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson came up with the concept based on research she began in the late 1990s. “It is not the norm at all [in business]. In fact, I think it’s unusual, which is what makes it potentially a competitive advantage,” Edmundson told host Curt Nickisch on a recent episode of Harvard Business Review’s IdeaCast, adding that psychological safety means creating an atmosphere where employees can express themselves with candor, including pushing back on company goals and strategies that don’t play out as expected. “The reason why psychological safety is rare has to do with aspects of human nature, human instinct … to want to look good in front of others. It’s an instinct to divert blame, you know, it’s an instinct to agree with the boss. And hierarchies are places where these instincts are even more exaggerated.” She says most people stay quiet in their effort to look good, unless they are sure their ideas will be well received.
So, how can you build a culture of psychological safety that fosters group creativity and encourages quality collaboration in your workplace?
To get some answers, The FruitGuys Magazine spoke with a psychological safety facilitator who offers a unique perspective. Baltimore-based Shlomo Slatkin is an ordained Orthodox Jewish rabbi with a master’s degree in counseling psychology. His firm Slatkin Communications focuses on improving workplace communication, using many of the techniques he employs as a couples counselor.
Rabbi Slatkin notes that creating a safe and open atmosphere for employees to share their ideas requires thoughtfulness and nuance. For example, if you’re soliciting ideas in a meeting, some of them are bound to fall flat—but how can you respond in a way that doesn’t shut down the process or the person who made the suggestion? Since every new suggestion involves some form of risk, how can you encourage more conversation and risk-taking within your team? It boils down to building trust, Slatkin says, and that takes time and patience.
Here are four key guidelines to creating a psychologically safe environment for your team:
1. Start Where You Are
If you’re a manager or a team lead, take a realistic assessment of the office environment you have created. Most managers think they’re approachable and open to new ideas, but more often that not their staff feels inhibited in what they can and can’t say.
Do you tend to get impatient in meetings? Are there staffers who get on your nerves? If so, it probably shows. “It is wise for managers to learn how to be honest with themselves,” Slatkin says. “If they react to an employee very strongly, then that is a clue to become introspective and get curious about why he or she is so bothersome [to you].”
Humble yourself, reach out for feedback, and find out how much work you need to do for your team to feel more comfortable with risk taking. You might ask a staffer who recently moved on or retired for his or her honest opinion of you. An anonymous survey is another great way to get feedback. If you do talk to colleagues, make it one-on-one with people with whom you already have a strong relationship. Admit that you're concerned you might not have done enough to create an inviting atmosphere, and ask for suggestions.
2. Set Clear Ground Rules
Communicate clearly what you expect from meetings and brainstorming sessions—and what the ground rules are for discussion. Explicitly identify the problem or situation you hope to tackle, and be clear that any feedback from the group should be about the idea—not the person who shared it. As Slatkin says, “Any criticism must be technical feedback or an expression of one‘s own feelings and experience. Characters attacks are unprofessional, unnecessary, and unsafe.”
Set boundaries for appropriate ideas from the beginning, so that people will be comfortable roaming wildly inside those bounds. (And if you are looking for edgy ideas such as sexuality in marketing, be sure to let folks know that, too).
Encourage candor and think about ways to balance participation. Some managers invite everyone else in the room to share their thoughts before offering any comments, so as not to impose their own bias. You might ask for everyone’s top two ideas—to ensure equal participation and prevent one or two people from dominating a conversation. Think about how you want the conversation to flow, experiment with different approaches, and see what works for your team.
3. Lead By Example
Once your meeting or conversation gets underway, active, engaged listening on your end is critical. Show your colleagues the respect of your complete attention–don’t interrupt or jump in to respond.
Slatkin recommends using mirroring—listening and repeating back to the speaker what they said—as a way to model controlling reactivity and negativity. “Mirroring is … similar to active listening. It is done in order to help the other feel heard and understood, check for accuracy to make sure the listener really got it, and also to help the listener be present with the one sharing instead of reacting or responding."
As a leader, you want to praise good ideas and not dismiss or harshly criticize other ones, even if their potential isn’t clear. This provides an opportunity for others to process the idea, and perhaps build on it with suggestions of their own. Remember that not every great idea emerges fully formed—often the best innovations involve collaboration and a few rounds of tweaking to get them right.
Don’t be afraid to use humor, humility, and self-deprecation to help put your team members at ease. Model vulnerability and admit mistakes.
4. De-emphasize Ego
Make it clear that coming up with ideas or suggestions isn’t about winning brownie points or “owning” the ideas. The goal is for the team to end up with the best collaborative work. Sometimes that will mean taking a risk in front of others—putting out a new idea, or pointing out something that isn’t working as it should—and a leader needs to create the feeling of psychological safety for team members to do that effectively.
Avoid negativity and judgmental comments when colleagues are putting themselves out there, says Slatkin. And keep in mind that there is nothing more damaging to psychological safety then “managers who punish employees who do speak their mind.”
Try a brainstorm session structured similarly to improvisational comedy’s “yes, and …” concept where one performer starts with a line or idea, and the next person builds on that, and so on. The end result can be fantastic—and make it seem like a well-planned script—but there’s no single author, and the credit goes to everyone involved. The most effective brainstorming groups use a lot of “yes, and” thinking–and understand that a successful team makes everyone successful.
Building psychological safety in a work setting is a gradual process, but as you begin to build a healthy and genuinely collaborative atmosphere within your team, you can expect to see higher levels of engagement, more willingness to tackle tough problems—you might even experience a rare and wonderful pleasure: meetings that are actually fun.
Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly (Diversion Books, 2013) and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution (Diversion Books, 2015). His work has appeared in Harvard Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Oregonian, as well as on his blog Taoish.org and on Warp, Weft, and Way, an academic blog about Chinese philosophy.