Psychological Safety Part I: A Guide To Understanding What It Is And How It Can Help Your Team

Table of Contents

A new term relating to how to promote effective groups may be the key to providing your team with the right framework to move forward. In this blog post, the first in a two-part series, we’ll be discussing what psychological safety is, and how it can be applicable to the current transitions many of us are facing. 

As a team building company, we are not only concerned with team building activities and programs, but also with ideas relating to team building–ideas that we can share with our clients to help them even more. One of the ways we do this is through our workshops, or supplemental lecture/activity courses that we can attach to our programs. 

These ideas also influence us as well, and end up in the activities and programs that we plan. We are always on the lookout for new terminology and models that are circulating in the team building literature, in order to offer our clients the most up-to-date and relevant information.

A new term that we’ve incorporated into our workshops recently is “psychological safety”. It’s at the forefront of today’s thinking about team building and team organization, so it’s relatively new. We also think it has a lot of applications to what’s going on right now, and for the transitions to come.

Part of the impetus for engaging with this topic, and why psychological safety has become so popular in general, is it’s appearance in Google’s re:Work study. This was an internal study conducted to learn about ways to make the work environment more productive.

One of the conclusions they came to was that team members want to feel psychologically safe, and that this sense of psychological safety can create a more productive and effective team.  

What is psychological safety?

In the Google study, psychological safety is defined as an environment where “team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.” In many work environments, especially ones that are highly hierarchical, team members may be reluctant to speak and express their opinions. This can lead to a situation where it is hard to come up with new ideas, or to criticize behaviors or methods that aren’t effective anymore.

Some major factors that make up psychological safety are trust and the ability to be direct. When team members trust each other and value each others’ opinions, they are more willing to share their views, knowing that they won’t be marginalized or punished. Moreover, they are also more able to listen and work at understanding their fellow members’ thoughts and feelings.

Misperceptions

We will discuss some of the more concrete applications of psychological safety in a little bit. First though, it might be good to talk about some of the ways that psychological safety can be misinterpreted as a way to conceptualize it more clearly.

Some people may think that psychological safety is about making team members more open, or trying to get them to be more extroverted. However, psychological safety is concerned with environments rather than individual behaviors. So it’s not about forcing people to change. Instead, using psychological safety as a tool creates an environment where team members are more able to be their authentic selves, and thrive as a result.

Another misconception is that psychological safety is all about consensus, having as little conflict as possible and making everyone feel comfortable all of the time. One thing I was struck by while reviewing the literature about psychological safety is that it welcomes conflict–as long as it’s managed. 

What this means is practice is that teams are encouraged to have conflicting views, to challenge each other when needed, and to debate and argue. However, instead of letting these discussions get out of hand or affect relationships, teams are able to control them and guide them to productive ends.

Finally, psychological safety may make some people think that there will be a relaxation of standards or a complacent work environment. But actually, psychological safety can often lead to team members achieving higher standards, since team members trust each other and are able to communicate more openly. While it’s true that creating a psychologically safe workplace isn’t sufficient on its own for improving workers’ performance, it is necessary for creating an effective work environment.

What makes a psychologically safe workplace?

Now let’s talk about specifics. In psychologically safe environments, workers and team members will tend to feel empowered, engaged, and curious about new ideas and opinions. So the question then is, how do you build that kind of environment? 

1) Less fear

Fear is the main driving force for a lot of negativity at work. Fear of speaking out, fear of sharing an idea, and fear of criticism can all work to limit team members and make them feel psychologically unsafe. Thus, building relationships (based on trust, as we will see below) should be a priority, and go a long way towards making tea members less afraid and more engaged.

Workplace structure can also influence these feelings of fear. As mentioned before, more hierarchical structures can breed more fear and distrust. Even if these structures seem unchangeable, there may be ways to change things within smaller teams or departments. 

2) Communicate and share

Again, this isn’t about forcing people to be more open. Rather, teams should focus on creating spaces where communication and sharing is more possible.

 Remember, communication is about listening as well. Teams can be open by listening to each other and getting a large range of perspectives. Communication also relates to how meetings are structured and who is allowed to speak. Making sure everyone’s voices are heard is important, as is conducting meetings where controlled conflict and discussions are allowed to take place.

3) Invite input and appreciate each other 

Constructive feedback, as well as appreciation make people feel valued and safe. An environment where team members feel that they can give each other input on when they are doing well and when they need some improvement lays the foundation for healthy relationships. It also makes team members trust each other, so that when there is a high-stress or high-stakes situation, team members will be able to be honest with each other.

4) Build trust

Trust is a major factor of psychological safety. Team members need to trust each other in order to be more open and share their opinions. Moreover, a lot of the fear that we talked about above is due to a lack of trust. Sometimes individual team members don’t trust each other, and sometimes there is a lack of trust between teams and their leaders or upper management. 

Trust requires time willingness on both ends. There is no magic bullet for increasing trust, but it isn’t something that just magically appears. You have to work for it and be proactive about maintaining it.

The role of team building

Team building is highly effective at building trust and strengthening relationships among team members. Thus, it can promote psychological safety within teams. Team building also gives teams a specific place and time to work on these issues, away from the regular daily schedule. This gives teams the chance to think differently, and the ability to look at their teams from a different perspective, which can open them up to sharing and communicating more.

Invite Japan has a large variety of activities that can help build the kind of trust that is needed. We also provide a workshop that is constructed around the topic of psychological safety specifically. This workshop includes lectures and discussions that help guide teams towards thinking more proactively about their work environments and making them more psychologically safe. 

Conclusion

Psychological safety is a new framework for thinking about workplace environments and how they can be made better. Not in terms of output of performance (at least not directly), but based on team members’ ability to communicate and share their thoughts and feelings. 

We at Invite Japan think this is a great and positive way to think about office culture, teams, and relationships in general, which is why we have incorporated it into our programs and workshops.

Finally, as a way to open this discussion further for next time, psychological safety has so many applications to what is going on today. There is a lot of fear and anxiety caused by changes in work-life balances and the nature of work itself, the growing use of technology, decreasing team unity, and returning to the office after a long period of working from home. The more teams can do to actively make each other feel safe, the better. And this is more important than ever. 

In the next part of this series, I will talk about psychological safety as it relates to the current situation, and some strategies for using psychological safety as a means of combating many of the challenges that teams are now facing. Psychological safety can be a great framework for uniting teams again, and bringing them through the transition to a post-pandemic model of work. 

Our supplemental workshops include one on the topic of psychological safety.

Photo by Headway on Unsplash

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Related Article