Psychological safety can be considered to be the collective lack of fear of expression; we should look to emulate the aspirations of our society when considering the best working environments for our teams.
As the heat builds, heralding the start of summer, I have given thought to the Pride celebrations that are common in June. In the past weeks there have been two of the greatest in New York and London; and in an idle hour of sunkissed self-reflection I pondered why I found these explosions of colour and expression so uplifting. It isn’t the visual spectacle or the expression of differentiation that I find enriching, more what the staging of the event says about our society, and how it stands against the forces that seek to divide and label us. My joy at Pride doesn’t come from the pageantry of the participants, but rather the inclusiveness of the wider society that accepts and celebrates it.
It is freedom that is celebrated. Initially this freedom was legal freedom, and slowly it evolved to be freedom of thought and now approaches freedom from judgement. We are reaching a normalisation, a situation where my eight year old sees our married gay friends no differently to any other couples he knows.
At the same time, yet on an entirely separate mental track, I have been involved in facilitating discussions on psychological safety with colleagues at BCG. These sessions began with an exploration of the concept – a definition. The ability to speak up with a contrary opinion was suggested, this then progressed to a sense of collective trust and then ultimately to an agreement on an environment free from fear, and explicitly the fear of judgement. This is not the absence of judgement; quite the opposite, it is an acknowledgement of objective criticism that appreciates, and actively seeks feedback.
I explain psychological safety as when someone, even if they do not have the full context, feels comfortable in raising a concern. Their concern being heard and discussed with no loss of face with the person who raised it feeling exactly the same regardless of whether they were shown to be right or wrong.
If trust is something that exists between two people, then psychological safety is the group equivalent. It is a characteristic of a collective rather than of an individual. You can’t take someone from a safe team, drop them into a group of strangers and expect them to behave as they did before. Psychological safety fills the gap between people; like mortar between bricks, it binds them together and enables them to build great things when individually, even as a large group, they are weak and easily fragmented.
The parallels between extravagantly colourful dancers in the streets of London and senior executives discussing team dynamics in a conference centre, are as stark as they are unexpected. They are both exploring a very deep emotional question, “what do we want from our environment?” Those executives were considering this from the compartmentalised perspective of a team working with a client; but this is a wider topic that belongs more to philosophy than business: What are the traits of a society we would desire to be part of?
In response I assert that freedom from oppression is one of the foundations of a world we would choose to inhabit. At the heart of oppression is the consequence of judgement. The more severe the judgement, the more restrictive the society becomes. It is no surprise that LGBT rights is a common yardstick for a society. When criticism of a regime is personally catastrophic then public protest ceases almost completely, but criticism only ceases openly. Those opinions still exist, seething under the surface like a buried blanket of malcontent. Within what most would consider to be a progressive society, we need to be tolerant to everything other than others’ intolerance. We aspire to universal psychological safety.
Stepping back from the immensity of sexual equality, these principles are replicated in teams, like microcosms of the world around them. The brilliant TED talk here from Amy Edmondson makes the case in simple terms with real world consequences. It is unfortunate that the situations that have the most severe consequences of failure look to mitigate them through penalties which repress the actions most likely to prevent them, repressing that lone perspective that that isn’t the wire to cut, or that isn’t the right incision to make, or that civilian isn’t a terrorist. The consequence of repression of opinion in unsafe environments is hugely damaging because it robs us of the only weapon we have to combat the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world to which we are now struggling to adapt. It robs us of feedback, it steals the opportunity to learn and therefore improve. Being wrong isn’t a failure of learning, it is the very essence of it. The only real failure is the failure to learn, and without a conscious effort to engender and sustain a psychologically safe environment you are risking everything to protect the sensibilities of others. This isn’t just theory, the much lauded work environments of Google and Spotify explicitly call out psychological safety as critical to their success. Effective delivery is found between people: it isn’t the efforts of the individuals that bring moments of brilliance but in the marrying of minds and ideas between them and psychological safety enables those minds to connect.
It is important to address a common misconception, a false association with niceness that enables some to dismiss the concept as an abdication of responsibility for delivery. The author Allison Vesterfelt addresses this elegantly when she compares niceness to the much more powerful concept of kindness.
Niceness stays quiet. Kindness speaks up. Niceness is toxic. Kindness is healing. Niceness lies to keep the peace. Kindness knows the only way to make peace is to tell the truth. Niceness holds back. Kindness moves forward with humility gentleness, and grace.
Psychological safety enables kindness, niceness is the antithesis.
Unfortunately psychological safety is not something that you can purchase or achieve though participation at an expensive training session. Like happiness, it is a lagging trait. Like a seed, you can’t make it grow through sheer force of effort, you need to create the right environment, and step back. It will grow slowly and steadily but like a seedling, it is most vulnerable when just a young tender shoot. Teams are most at risk when they initially open up to each other, a misjudged word then will cause more damage than had the team not started to open up in the first place..
It is easier to bring about psychological safety as a member of the group rather than as the courageous activist, “Be the change you want to see in the world” and hold back from countering alternative opinions. It starts with vulnerability and stepping back from the trappings of power and authority. A desire to retain and enforce hierarchy is one of the most insidious enemies of a safe environment. Leaders need to step back from the trappings of power and authority to prove to teams that they genuinely welcome free expression. They must allow themselves to be vulnerable to having their suggestion countered or even dismissed, and when that happens they absolutely must react positively. In the long run it is better to be loved than feared. Rewards and recognition are at the centre of changing behaviours and culture. Those that speak up deserve kind words and respectful listening. Ultimately if a team can agree it is everyone’s personal responsibility to make everyone else look good, or even better than themselves; then psychological safety will flourish.
I am fortunate to have worked in teams where I could speak up, and I am proud to be able to say I have had my suggestions countered, been hurt by the criticism and managed to let go, prioritising the team dynamic over my own fragile ego. I have felt the infectious enthusiasm that comes from a safe team, it was a wondrous sensation that enabled fantastic delivery.
However I am prouder still to live in a society that celebrates my liberty to paint a rainbow on my face and not only does not judge me for doing so, but does not even assume that I am LGBT. I wish everything could be this psychologically safe.
Comments are welcomed – even criticism. It is only through feedback that we learn.
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