Have you ever wondered why team performance and morale is at an all-time low, no matter how much time and effort is put into organisational wellness and engagement initiatives?
Do any of these statements sound familiar to you?
There are multiple priorities and it constantly feels like we’re trying to climb a mountain, there must be an easier way.
I feel tense and worried about my performance. I don’t have a sense that my contributions matter and I’m not valued for who I really am.
I feel that if I don’t cover my back I could be blamed and judged.
There is good news though. Our experience from working with many organisations is that by applying the ground-breaking relational neuroscience and physiological safety insights, we can truly transform how people feel and achieve at work.
If you are a high-performer or work in a high-achieving organisation, you’re no doubt familiar with the overwhelm, burn-out and decision-making paralysis and that more often than not characterises the modern workplace.
Wellness initiatives are emerging as a strategic priority in our corporate spheres, yet even sophisticated well-being initiatives can fail to fully address the chronic problems that HR teams and leaders across the world are attempting to solve.
Where are organisations going wrong?
… Because human beings are inherently wired for connection.
When organisations don’t provide the foundations for belonging and psychological safety in the workplace, our nervous systems cannot thrive. We’re unable to make the true connections that make us happy.
Don’t believe me? Just ask Google!
The environment we’re in and the people around us can really affect how we think and feel. Whether you prefer the outdoors, something cosy or lots of bright colour, unexpected and pivotal moments can occur in spaces where we feel most relaxed and inspired. So why not try creating your own dedicated space to encourage strategic thinking.
The concept of psychological safety was first introduced by organisational behavioural scientist, Amy Edmondson, who coined the phrase and defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.
Psychological safety describes a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves. | Amy Edmondson.
In 2015, Google embarked on a quest to build the perfect team. Their research – called project Aristotle, a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” – uncovered that Psychological safety is one of the greatest secrets of group dynamics, team learning and effectiveness.
Project Aristotle studied 180 teams at Google, conducted more than 200 interviews and analysed over 250 team attributes however things weren’t adding up. It wasn’t clear what successful teams shared in common. It wasn’t until Google started studying some intangibles that things became clearer.
Google looked at the team behaviours and characteristics which magnified the collective intelligence and ability of the group, identifying the following:
5 key characteristics of enhanced teams
. Psychological Safety– A sense that taking interpersonal risks with colleagues is rewarding, not threatening.
. Dependability – Team members that get things done on time and meet expectations.
. Structure & Clarity – Clear goals and well-defined roles within the group.
. Meaning – Their work has personal significance.
. Impact – Their work is purposeful and positively impacts the greater good.
Psychological Safety is not only considered the most important factor but also the least recognised or talked about. Innovation and creative problem-solving are only possible when psychological safety is firmly in place.
Why is Psychological Safety so good for us?
The nervous system’s response to connection and relaxation is what underpins psychological safety. Our ventral vagal or social engagement system, involved in most aspects of social contact and pleasure, is essential to calming our nervous system which affects heart rate variability, our ability to read facial muscle cues of other mammals and our ability to be in resonance with self and others.
Social engagement doesn’t mean “being sociable”, it means developing a wide window of tolerance to express and experience emotion without switching to a fight, flight or freeze state.
When the brain’s process of perception and evaluation, termed ‘neuroception’, senses Psychological Safety, our bodies use oxygen as fuel and not cortisol, we have a far greater ability to read and express social cues, and our creativity and problem-solving potential increases.
Three benefits of building psychological safety
. Increases how much we learn from mistakes 1
. Boosts employee engagement 2,3
. Improves team innovation 4
When we take interpersonal risks within our teams, for example suggesting something a bit left-field or making a joke at the wrong time, and we are met with judgement or ridicule, our nervous systems take a hit. This curbs our willingness in the future to take risks and as a result our collaboration potential is severely limited.
In contrast, when we have a sense that we have a place in a group, that our voice is welcome, that we are listened to when we speak, and when we feel our contributions matter, our ventral vagal system is engaged.
What behaviours & skills should we cultivate to support psychological safety?
- Acknowledge your own fallibility – you are not perfect!
- Frame problems as learning problems, not execution problems.
- Model curiosity and ask lots of questions – have an open frame of enquiry rather than believing there is a right and wrong answer.
- Openly discuss mistakes and challenges in meetings – proceed with the assumption that it’s ok to make mistakes and celebrate team members who challenge the norm.
- Have a clear team structure where members understand their roles and responsibilities – when we know what we are doing and understand our place, we feel safe. 5
- Be clear on how people can contribute to the purpose – when we have a clear sense of how we fit in, and when our contribution is valued, we feel safe and satisfied.
- Ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard and voice their ideas. Takes turns to speak during discussions so everyone feels heard, accepted and acknowledged.
- Form strong relationships between team members 6,7
How can we measure psychological safety?
In order to assess a team’s level of psychological safety, Amy Edmondson asked team members how strongly they agreed or disagreed with these questions:
- If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you?
- Are members of this team able to bring up problems and tough issues?
- Have people on this team sometimes rejected others for being different?
- Is it safe to take a risk on this team?
- Is it difficult to ask other members of this team for help?
- Would no one on this team deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts?
- When working with members of this team, are my unique skills and talents valued and utilised?
These questions and criteria are just the beginning. In order to truly shift workplace culture and behaviour so that people feel good, we need to embed psychological safety into the organisation’s DNA. How do we do this?
At Feel Good Leadership, we coach executive leaders, managers and teams to institutionalise empathy and connection, form and nurture better relationships with team members, and allow ‘whole-brain’ thinking to create thriving workplaces.
Are you and your organisation experiencing a drop in individual or team performance even though your goals and focus may seem clear? Are feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion affecting progress? Are signs and symptoms of burnout affecting your personal health? Perhaps a lack of connection and meaning in your relationships is the result of relentlessly striving to achieved tasks.
If you can relate to any of this and you’d like to talk more, please get in touch. We’d love to talk to you about how we can support you and your organisation to feel good, perform better and ultimately be better.
About the Author
Jenny Rossiter is a leading coach, author, human behaviour specialist and founder of Feel Good Leadership. With for more than 20 years of experience in business and leadership, she has delivered practical strategies and techniques to inspire new thinking and form healthy habits. Because people who feel good achieve extraordinary things.
1. Edmondson, A. C. (1 March 1996). “Learning from Mistakes is Easier Said Than Done: Group and Organizational Influences on the Detection and Correction of Human Error”. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. 32 (1): 5–28. doi:10.1177/0021886396321001.
2. ^ Kark, Ronit; Carmeli, Abraham (1 August 2009). “Alive and creating: the mediating role of vitality and aliveness in the relationship between psychological safety and creative work involvement”. Journal of Organizational Behavior. 30 (6): 785–804. doi:10.1002/job.571.
3. ^ Jump up to:a b Nembhard, Ingrid M.; Edmondson, Amy C. (1 November 2006). “Making it safe: the effects of leader inclusiveness and professional status on psychological safety and improvement efforts in health care teams”. Journal of Organizational Behavior. 27 (7): 941–966. doi:10.1002/job.413.
4. ^ West, Michael A.; Anderson, Neil R. (1 January 1996). “Innovation in top management teams”. Journal of Applied Psychology. 81 (6): 680–693. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.81.6.680.
5. Bunderson, J. S.; Boumgarden, P. (4 December 2009). “Structure and Learning in Self-Managed Teams: Why “Bureaucratic” Teams Can Be Better Learners”. Organization Science. 21 (3): 609–.
6. ^ Carmeli, Abraham; Gittell, Jody Hoffer (1 August 2009). “High-quality relationships, psychological safety, and learning from failures in work organizations”. Journal of Organizational Behavior. 30 (6): 709–729. doi:10.1002/job.565.
7. ^ Schulte, M.; Cohen, N. A.; Klein, K. J. (22 October 2010). “The Coevolution of Network Ties and Perceptions of Team Psychological Safety”. Organization Science. 23 (2): 564–581. doi:10.1287/orsc.1100.0582.