Psychological safety can be used to foster a more outspoken and openly innovative team environment–through improving overall mental health on the team. We show you how this happens, and how it can help your team, in the following post.
Ever since Google published its highly influential report on what makes good teams in 2015, the organizational studies and team building world has been focused on the concept of “psychological safety”.
Psychological safety describes a type of ideal space or environment more than a process. It expresses the need for team members to feel a sense of security and safety–in all senses of the word–in order to flourish.
As we shall see, this sense of safety is not the same as comfortability. Rather, it is the safety from prejudice, from punishment, and from harassment. It is safe in the knowledge that you can express yourself, your emotions, and your ideas–freely and without any repercussions.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, psychological safety took on new resonances, as the pandemic created a situation of high fear and panic. The safety was no longer abstract or derived from relationships–and it had mental health impacts as well.
Dealing with the permeating sense of anxiety has made all teams realize the importance of building strong structures as a team–especially as the old structures (offices, interaction, drinking parties) melted away or were restricted. New types of work like remote and hybrid emerged, and needed to be reinforced with stabilizing mechanisms that would help teams recover and thrive.
Now, as we move away from the immediate crisis of the pandemic and take a longer-term view of the situation, it’s clear that psychological safety, mental health, and resilience are all interrelated.
More than that though, psychological safety has an added benefit, which is to make teams more creative and innovative. When team members feel more psychologically safe, they feel more comfortable sharing ideas. So there’s a connection between mental health and creativity as well.
In the following blog post, we’ll look at the connection between psychological safety, mental health and having the courage to speak out. We’ll investigate more closely how psychological safety operates through mental well-being on teams, and what that means for teams that want to create a more dynamic and innovative team culture.
Review: What is psychological safety?
First, let’s review some of the main aspects of psychological safety. In our psychological safety workshop we break down the four main components of psychological safety as follows:
- Trust: In order to form a psychologically safe environment, all team members need to have trust in each other and the structures that they decide on to accomplish their goals. A significant part of this is trust between managers and other employees. Employees need to feel that they can trust their superiors to not punish them or marginalize them because of their views.
- Open communication: Teams need to have spaces and structures to communicate openly with each other (this includes thoughts, feelings, and opinions). Team members should be encouraged to speak out and speak honestly, through active role modeling by managers and mentors, and through team policies that promote debate.
- Criticism and feedback: Along with communication in general, teams need to be specifically encouraged to give each other feedback and provide criticism. Team members, especially team leaders, need to be open to criticism. Things like mentorship opportunities and team training can help younger or newer members get used to criticism and feedback, and open discussions and debates can help give team members a greater sense of buy-in in decisions.
- Managed conflict: Rather than simply making team members feel comfortable, psychological safety encourages them to speak out and have conflicts with each other over decisions and ideas. The key is that these conflicts are controlled, and harnessed towards productive ends, instead of spilling over into interpersonal relationships.
It’s important to point out that these four components are interrelated and affect each other. For example, it’s difficult to imagine an environment where you can really speak out and have managed conflicts without a certain level of trust. On the other hand, having the ability to speak out and get into managed conflicts in the first place can lead to greater trust.
In terms of effecting a psychologically safe environment then, it’s important to look at the team environment as a whole and recognize which aspects need to be improved or bolstered. If your team already has heated debates, look at whether the conflicts that result are being managed, or if there is any sense of bullying going on that could undermine trust.
If your team tends to be silent during discussions, perhaps you need to work on encouraging the team to speak out through more encouragement or creating different structures where people feel comfortable speaking (one-on-one or small group discussions, for example).
Psychological safety and mental health
Now let’s look at some of the effects that psychological safety has on mental health. While it’s hard to talk about individual mental health issues, which can vary from person to person, we can talk in general about the mental health and well-being of the team as whole.
We know that when there is greater trust on teams, when team members feel that they have a chance to speak and be heard, and when conflicts are managed so that they don’t affect relationships, team members feel less anxious and fearful. These two emotions tend to make workers more stressed overall.
We also know that team members want to feel validated at work, and to know that their work is meaningful. Validation and meaning both come from purpose and positive interactions with others. So much of our self-worth at work comes in large part from whether we feel we are having a positive impact on others, and contributing to the larger goals of the team.
So the main mechanism by which psychological safety works is through the overall mental health of the team. By lowering the amount of stress and anxiety that team members feel, it allows them to reach their true potential as both individual workers with their own self-worth and career goals, as well as co-workers engaged in a project larger than themselves.
Here is a summary of some of ways that psychological safety affects mental health:
- Not being as fearful or anxious to speak your mind.
- Not being fearful about punishment or ostracization.
- Not being fearful about losing your position due to criticism or saying a strange idea.
- Creating a feeling of being part of a family, or a close group of friends.
- Being able to brainstorm freely and come up with new ideas.
- Being able to communicate with coworkers freely without feeling that you will be reported behind your back.
- Not having to dread going to work.
- Knowing that your ideas will be respected and heard.
- Being able to ask for help and support when needed (emergencies, mental health issues, personal issues, etc.)
- Feeling trusted and validated no matter the role or position.
Psychological safety and the “courage” to speak out
We often view speaking out as a courageous act. But that’s only when we feel that our backs have been pressed against the wall so to speak, when we have no other options but to speak out. What we want to create on teams is not that situation, actually.
On teams, we want to create an environment in which speaking out is natural, when it doesn’t happen out of anxiety or a sense of perceived threat to our moral values, but rather as a part of our daily work.
This, then, is the key to constructing an environment in which more people speak up and out. When you create a psychologically safe environment, you are creating an environment that takes away that level of fear and anxiety, and replaces it with trust, compassion, and respect. In this way, everyone feels more comfortable speaking and sharing and getting into productive conflict.
How to get to psychological safety
But first, you need to actually create a psychologically safe environment. How can teams actually do this? There is, unfortunately, no set path. As we said before, psychological safety is a state (or a goal to reach) rather than a distinct process. However, there are some guiding points for teams to follow.
1. Understand your team
The most important way that teams can begin to construct a psychologically safe environment is by understanding each other. Managers have to understand what their workers’ needs and personalities are, and workers likewise need to understand the larger meaning of the team and what they are working towards.
This will require a lot of active discussions and listening. But this will in turn lead to greater trust and make team members feel safer, so it lends itself to the end goal that you are trying to reach.
2. Find structures and tools that fit your team
This is part of the same way of thinking as the step above. Structures that work for one team may not work for another. The important point is to search for the ones that do work for your team, and to remain flexible and adaptive.
A good example is a team that is made up of people from the same country, versus another team made up of people from different countries. The former may have an easier time trusting and communicating with each other, since they all come from similar backgrounds and may speak the same language.
The latter team may not be able to affect the same environment as easily. It may have to look for other ways to bring greater cultural understanding between the various groups.
Part of this could include giving the members who speak the same language the space to talk amongst themselves before having larger group discussions. That way, members who may feel uncomfortable speaking in another language will have the chance to share their opinions. Or it could mean doing more team building activities where the groups are mixed, and giving more of a chance for team members to get to know each other on a personal level.
This brings up another idea for playing with different structures, which is to use different methods of brainstorming or discussion. For example, split up the team into pairs before a big discussion, use mentor-mentee pairings, or allow team members to draw or write out their ideas before a meeting.
This is just one part of psychological safety, but you can see that there are lots of ways to include everyone and to get people to become more open. So don’t settle on just one way of doing things.
3. It takes time and patience
The last piece of advice is that psychological safety does not happen in a day. It is a goal to work towards, which means that you will need to constantly be striving towards it. And this in turn requires time and patience.
Many people are used to how things are, or have been done. Psychological safety is relatively new, and so many people aren’t familiar with it. So it will take time to explain and figure out how to implement it on your team.
But more than that, psychological safety is based on relationships and team dynamics. All relationships need constant work, and so do teams. Take each day as it comes and try to open up your team a little more each time. Eventually, with enough effort and training, your team will be able to create a psychologically safe environment.
Psychological safety can transform how your team thinks and acts. But doing this requires an understanding of how psychological safety works, and where it actually affects teams. By creating a positive environment on teams, team members feel less anxious and fearful, and are therefore more able to work together and come up with new ideas. The focus is on the team as a whole and the type of environment that it is working in. Keeping this in mind will help you develop healthy teams, and team members that feel comfortable speaking out, no matter the occasion.