We’ve all been on teams where we don’t feel comfortable speaking up. We keep quiet even when we know we have something helpful or of value to add. Why is that? Self-censorship often happens in teams that lack what is called psychological safety.
Psychological safety is what you feel when you sense the group thinks, “We like you”, “We think you are smart”, “Even if you mess up, you are still an important part of this team”. As social creatures, we are always looking-out for threats to our self-worth. When we feel like team members may publicly highlight our ineptitude or incompetence, we turn off things like creativity or our willingness to propose new ideas or critique existing ones. In turn, this reduces team productivity and satisfaction; exactly what we DON’T want to happen on our high-performing teams.
So, what increases psychological safety on a team? What turns down the flashing danger signs and turns up the signs of safety on a team? Here are a few practices that work:
1. Reframe Conflict. One perceived danger sign flashes when conflict is sensed. If disagreements are seen as competitions, there is always a winner and a loser. And let’s face it, no one likes to lose. Psychological safety can be nurtured by turning conflict into collaboration. When conflict is framed as an internal tension between one’s perception of reality and one’s desire for it to be different, rather than a problem between people to be solved, it is easier to engage in open dialogue. Acknowledge the internal conflicts, then metaphorically place the issue to the side and stand shoulder to shoulder, walking each other around it to gain increased perspective on reality and additional lenses through which to view it.
2. Respect. Many times, team members feel disrespected when their ideas are not taken seriously. Listening, asking questions, and summarizing encourages an individual to feel heard. By showing respectful acknowledgement to the group’s loudest and the quietest members, psychological safety is created for everyone.
3. Socialize. We are all busy. But when teams neglect the social aspects of collaboration, incorrect assumptions and misperceptions can short circuit feelings of safety on a team. By taking the time to know each other, support each other, laugh together, and create inside jokes, group stories, and shared experiences, the ensuing trust naturally bathes every conversation.
4. Identify. Research suggests that when individuals identify strongly with a team, they trust those team members more deeply. Team identity is built through shared experiences and story-telling. This increases the use of pronouns like we and us. Through the celebration of group rituals and successes, team members feel part of something special. This often translates into feelings of trust and safety within the team… and motivations to look out for each other’s and the team’s best interests.
Building trust takes time and intention. It can also erode more quickly than it is created. But intentional reinforcement of psychological safety makes a team more productive, satisfied, and a lot more fun.