Psychological safety is an important concept in today’s workplaces. When your team experiences psychological safety at work, it means they feel respected, valued and able to express themselves in a safe environment.
With the increase in mental health issues in our workplaces, psychological safety has never been more critical. Mental health issues were already on the rise before the 2020 Coronavirus was making us stay inside our houses for months on end, but this has made the problem even worse.
In this post, I’m going to cover some good ways to cultivate a safe environment in your team, so they feel safe coming to work under your leadership.
What Psychological Safety Isn’t.
You are probably keen for your people to work in a safe environment. It is the job of leaders to create this safe environment where people can enjoy coming to work.
However, a psychologically safe environment doesn’t mean your team can do whatever they want. You still need to be able to manage performance and set the direction for your team.
This means you still might need to have difficult conversations or provide feedback for poor performance. It won’t serve you to build an environment where you are afraid to manage your team.
Therefore, psychological safety does not mean that your team members are protected from constructive feedback, hard conversations or conflict. These are all natural parts of leadership, team dynamics and managing team performance.
Listen to the Thoughtful Leader Podcast: #87: How to Fix Behaviour Issues In Your Team.
How to Build a Culture of Psychological Safety In Your Team
Culture is king in the workplace. In your team, I’m sure you would rather create a strong, positive culture, than one that has people feeling anxious all day.
The best team cultures have people feeling safe, but also accountable. Team members feel free to express themselves without fear, but also know that they need to fulfil their end of the bargain, which is to do the work, and do it well.
Here are some good ways to create psychological safety in your team.
1. Be Consistent and Link Cause and Effect
As we covered earlier, psychological safety doesn’t mean your team should get away with murder. But it does mean that we need to be consistent.
If we need to give constructive feedback or there need to be consequences for poor behaviour or performance, they need to be clearly linked to the original action. In other words, there can be no ambiguity for the reason behind a poor performance review or negative feedback.
We need to make sure that our people are clear about the consequences of their actions. If you let bad behaviour slide one day, but then on another day you scream at your team members, people are left feeling confused.
This constant guesswork creates uncertainty and people don’t know what to expect. This in turn, can create feelings of anxiety over time. Will your team get in trouble today, or are you in a good mood?
The same goes for quality. If you expect high quality one day, but then the next day you don’t care, you’ll send mixed messages.
Psychological safety means people know where they stand and they know what is expected. Consistency goes a long way in setting the tone.
Learn More: 10 Simple & Effective Tips For Giving Feedback.
2. Build Psychological Safety By Letting Go of the Blame Game
If your team members think they’ll be blamed for failure, they’ll start to act tentatively. They will avoid taking any risks. Instead, they’ll always play it safe.
Your team will struggle to take on ownership and accountability because they will feel vulnerable. Instead, they’ll step back and let you take all the heat.
Sure, you’re the boss so you need to be accountable overall. However, developing your team members always involves uncertainty and discomfort. You will find it hard to encourage your people to step out of their comfort zone if they feel like they’ll be blamed for any failure.
To let go of the blame game, we need to tackle the situation, not the person. Instead of focusing on who was at fault, focus on resolving the issue. After the issue is resolved, then you can have the discussions about how things might have turned out better.
3. Encourage Trying and Failing
If you want your team members to grow and develop, they need to try new things. To do this, team members need to step up and take more responsibility, or take on different tasks and projects.
If your team are scared of failure, they simply won’t want to. They will instead sit back and wait to be told exactly what to do. This will not only cause you frustration, but will take much more of your time, because you’ll need to be very directive, telling your team members exactly what to do.
Psychologically safe environments encourage proactivity, which is what we want in our teams. Proactivity suffers when people are afraid to fail.
To encourage people to try and (potentially) fail, do the following:
- Allow for mistakes: Reassure your team that mistakes are part of getting better. Let them know that you’re willing to adjust the approach if something isn’t working. Nobody needs to get it right the first time.
- Be available to support your team: Meet your team members frequently to discuss progress and coach them if they are uncertain. Make sure you are available when they need your help. You can act as a safety net and they’ll feel safer with you around.
- Don’t rush in at the first sign of trouble: Your team members will learn when they start to fix their own problems. Be available to support them, but don’t solve the issue for them straight away. This may undermine them in the eyes of other stakeholders. Standing back and supporting shows that you trust them.
- Align key stakeholders: Make sure that key people know what you’re trying to do with your team. This might mean telling your boss that you’re trying something new, and asking for their support. You may even need to take the heat for your team, if the worst happens. This limits the potential pressure on your team members, letting them work freely.
Learn More: The #1 Way That Leaders Damage Team Trust.
4. Build Psychological Safety by Encouraging Team Input
Asking your team for input will not only enable you to benefit from a diverse range of ideas, it will also provide a boost to psychological safety.
Because when you ask your team for input, they will feel involved, trusted and valued. They will feel like they are helping shape the way the team operates.
Of course, for this to work, you also need to use their ideas when you can. Just asking for input and then ignoring it will eventually signal that you don’t really value what they have to say.
In contrast, leaders who never ask for input from their teams are setting the tone for a “my way or the highway” team culture.
Learn More: 6 Powerful Ways to Create Open Communication in Your Team.
5. Walk the Talk
Along with being consistent, to reinforce psychological safety at work you need to make sure your actions match your words.
If you keep saying that failing is OK, but then get angry or blame people for mistakes, you’re sending mixed messages. This can be very difficult for leaders, because it’s natural to feel uncomfortable with mistakes. We’d rather everything was just perfect.
The trick is to force yourself to resist the temptation to jump on errors or problems. Instead, you need to be vigilant about how you react and behave in the face of issues.
If you say your team should try and then adjust if something goes wrong, your behaviour needs to be aligned with that way of thinking.
6. Build Psychological Safety By Leading Informally
I personally like what I call “informal” leadership. I’m not interested in making myself “the boss” and leading with authority, because it only gets you so far.
People who try to exercise their power and authority too often will fail to build trust with their teams.
Trust is built on mutual respect, so if you constantly push your ideas over the top of everyone else’s because you’re “the boss”, then you’ll limit your ability to build trust.
Obviously, some situations demand more formal and authoritative leadership. But in general, I find informal leadership to be a good approach to building psychological safety.
So what does informal leadership mean? To me, it really means trying not to treat everything as a big deal and letting go of the ego. Using humour, being approachable and remaining calm when things go wrong are some good ways to do this.
When something really is important, you need to clearly communicate this to your team so they understand. Otherwise, they’ll feel confused about what matters, and what doesn’t.
When leaders need everything to go smoothly, work seems like a big deal. But it’s the small, fun interactions within a team that can make the difference in building trust and a culture of psychological safety.
Identify the parts of the work that really matter, and relax on the rest.
Learn More: Why Formal Authority Won’t Solve Your Leadership Problems.
Building Psychological Safety Takes Time
Above are some good ways to build psychological safety in your team. It can take time, especially when leading a new team. You really can only demonstrate consistent behaviour over time, so you might not be able to create a safe culture in a day.
Some team members will also come into your team with different perceptions of leadership, and may also come with baggage from previous toxic leaders.
It’s up to you to show them that work can be enjoyable and fulfilling, by building a culture of psychological safety at work.
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