Why Psychological Safety is Essential for Team Performance

Improving a team’s psychological safety will increase its performance

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Psychological safety in teams is not only important for the wellbeing people working in that team. It is also vital for the productivity of that team and for the organization it works for. Therefore, managers and employees alike should watch out for each other and make sure everyone feels at ease.  

Why psychological safety in teams is important

The majority of the work done today is focused on knowledge work. As the quality of knowledge work is often dependent on the collaboration of multiple people, it is important that teams function well.

Research within Google indicates that the following five components are essential for productive teams (in order of importance):

  1. Psychological safety
  2. Dependability – can you count on your teammates and can they count on you for quality work finished in time
  3. Structure and clarity: it is clear for everyone what their role is and how the organization is structured
  4. Meaningful work
  5. Impact: do we believe that our work actually makes a difference

Psychological safety came out on top, so apparently this is very important for collaboration.

It increases the following factors, leading to increased employee well-being and productivity:

  1. Risk taking
  2. Creativity
  3. Speaking up
  4. Protecting other team members

Psychological safety helps you and your colleagues to take moderate and calculated risks. This in turn helps with creativity. Because if you want to be creative, it is important that new ideas are not ridiculed by other team members or your manager. If this happens, you’ll think twice before proposing an original approach for an existing problem.

The opposite is also true: if there is a lot of competition within teams and people are punished for mistakes, productivity drops. Therefore, people will get more defensive and will not be swayed easily to take any risks. Hence, overall productivity drops as everyone stick with the old (safe) way of working.

This is because when there is no psychological safety, our fight-or-flight response is triggered. When this happens, we mainly “think” with our amygdala. This is the most primitive part of our brain, which is equipped to respond quickly to life-or-death situations. However, this kind of behavior is not really helping in the office, where we’re hardly in a life-or-death situation. For instance, there are more constructive ways than throwing a tantrum when somebody criticizes you.

Dysfunctional teams however, will keep you in a constant fight-or-flight mode.

6 ways to improve psychological safety in teams

There are many ways to improve the psychological safety in your team. And you don’t have to be the manager to apply them either. Don’t forget that your manager also needs psychological safety. This is also something that you as a team member can provide, by being cooperative, agreeable and dependable for instance.

With the following 6 tips you can start improving your team’s psychological safety immediately:

  1. Don’t treat your colleague as an opponent
  2. Consider your colleague’s perspective: your colleague also has anxieties, ambitions, hopes and vulnerabilities. He or she is likely also uncertain even though it doesn’t show. Keep that in mind when communicating to that other person.
  3. Don’t blame, but be curious: when the outcomes are not what you expected, don’t blame someone else. Rather, make sure to give a neutral description of what happened and find out how you can improve together.
  4. Measure the psychological safety of your team
  5. Ask for feedback on your communication: ask for feedback on how you communicate about mistakes (either theirs or your own) with others. Are you constructive? Do you use the right tone of voice?
  6. Anticipate how colleagues will respond: it helps to think through on how the other person will respond to your feedback. Also steady yourself emotionally for this response and think of what your best anticipated behaviors might be in those cases.
  7. Start the team meeting with mentioning the risks you took last week: At Google, this increased the feeling of psychological safety with 6 percent.

When you start with one or two of these behaviors, it is likely that other team members will reciprocate.

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