Psychological safety at Workplace: an overlooked secret to organizational performance

Psychological safety at Workplace: an overlooked secret to organizational performance

by - Alan Caugant, CEO SUPERHUMAIN™

Psychological safety at work is an essential foundational component for innovation, divergent thinking, creativity and risk-taking — but it should not be confused with comfort. There are several small behaviors Neuroleaders can cultivate to help their teams take more interpersonal risks to increase psychological safety.

1. Psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development

Have you ever worked on a team with low psychological safety? How about with high psychological safety?

Chances are you could probably answer these questions without even knowing the full definition of this concept.

We have worked in both situations, and the differences in effectiveness are stark. We have been part of teams that came together rapidly, agreed on a common understanding of next steps (though it took challenging conversations to come to agreement), executed flawlessly and then disbanded and moved on to other initiatives.

Equally vivid are memories of teams where communication did not flow, trust between team members was low, clarity was lacking, people held back in sharing ideas and opinions, and the teams therefore struggled to meet expected deliverables and deadlines.

Underneath it all ran the thread of psychological safety, which is defined by Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School and author of “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth,” as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Psychological safety is the why behind our responses to the questions, “Can I speak up? Will I be punished or ridiculed for sharing my opinion? Can I be honest about who I am and my perspective?” If you respond “no” to one or more of these questions, there is a good chance that there is a lack of sufficient psychological safety on that team. If you respond “yes” to all, could you say the same for every member of the teams in your organization?

Psychological safety is an essential foundational component for innovation, divergent thinking, creativity and risk-taking.

At the same time, it should not be confused with comfort.

Teams that are comfortable are less likely to take risks for fear of disrupting the current status quo, which then ultimately decreases the sense of psychological safety. Team members need to feel safe enough to speak up while also acknowledging a productive level of discomfort that pushes them toward growth and progress.

When we share this insight with leaders in our executive coaching programs, corporate training courses, we highlight that their time spent on increasing psychological safety at workplace will produce a significant return on investment, there is uniform head-nodding and at least a vague commitment to make psychological safety a higher priority.

Unless there is intentional intervention, however, little or no progress is made because leaders are not sure how to cultivate psychological safety or think the effort is too daunting.

In these instances, leaders who truly want to cultivate psychological safety would be wise to draw on one of George Washington’s oft-cited Scottish maxims, “Many a mickle makes a muckle” (i.e., the accumulation of small amounts of something that over time becomes a large amount), which is echoed by recent research around tiny habits, The Progress Principle, small wins and atomic habits.

Once small behaviors or habits begin to accumulate, they build on each other. Likewise, once leaders focus their attention on increasing psychological safety in small ways, the accumulation of those small behaviors across teams can lead to transformational changes at the organizational level.

As a result, when we see head-nodding around the importance of psychological safety, we then strive to gain head-nodding about small behaviors that leaders can cultivate to help their teams take more interpersonal risks to increase psychological safety.

How do we do that?

2. SUPERHUMAIN Neuroleadership: A solution that boosts psychological safety at work

Leaders can build psychological safety by creating the right climate, mindsets, and behaviors within their teams.
In our experience, those who do this best act as catalysts, empowering and enabling other leaders on the team—even those with no formal authority—to help cultivate psychological safety by role modelling and reinforcing the behaviors they expect from the rest of the team.

 Our research finds that a positive team climate—in which team members value one another’s contributions, care about one another’s well-being, and have input into how the team carries out its work—is the most important driver of a team’s psychological safety.

By setting the tone for the team climate through their own actions, team leaders have the strongest influence on a team’s psychological safety.

Moreover, creating a positive team climate can pay additional dividends during a time of disruption.

Our research at the SUPERHUMAIN Institute finds that a positive team climate has a stronger effect on psychological safety in teams that experienced a greater degree of change in working remotely than in those that experienced less change during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Les comportements de protection inhibent l’apprentissage et la performance, car dans un climat d’insécurité, il devient préférable de se protéger plutôt que de s’améliorer, car cela est trop coûteux en cas d’échec.

With consultative leadership, which has a direct and indirect effect on psychological safety, neuroleaders consult their team members, solicit input, and consider the team’s views on issues that affect them.

Our Neuroleadership approach has an indirect but still significant effect on psychological safety by helping to create a positive team climate.

3. SUPERHUMAIN Neuroleadership: Key ingredients for success

During our Neuroleadership development program, we demonstrate the necessity and value of implementing tiny habits that support building toward an inclusive team climate.

For example, assigning someone the role of facilitating team interactions with the goal of being mindful about creating space for team members to speak openly about failures can support a psychologically safe team environment.

While everyone on the team must be responsible for fostering an inclusive culture, the leader can pave the way by demonstrating vulnerability through sharing stories and inviting others to do the same.

One tactical method that we have developed at SUPERHUMAIN Institute involves asking each team member to publicly share their responses to the sentence completion exercise: “I will …” and “We should … .”

By recording these statements, having transparent public commitments to act, establishing accountability partners, and building in “nudges” to prompt follow-up, we have found that leaders are more successful in leading their teams and organizations down the path of increasing psychological safety.

Besides, in seeking to build brain-friendly workplace, we need to be willing to stop and reflect on how we are doing.

Working in sprints, or small bursts with planned pauses for reflection, builds the habit of continually inspecting the way we work.

Building an effective balance of productive discomfort and safety requires constant practice and vigilance.

Once these habits are built and solidified in individual and team behavior, teams and organizations will be able to make progress against extraordinary outcomes.

As 2021 — the year of reinvention — has shown us, the presence or lack of brain-friendly workplace can be the make-or-break factor for necessary resilience to disruptive changes

As effective neuroleaders, we have understood that it’s our role to preserve our company’s human capital through change.

By raising awareness on change impacts in the minds of people and providing adequate brain-friendly sustainable methods to lead change, we will effectively support you and your organizations on fostering a SUPERHUMAIN Mindset and Culture.

Looking Ahead for SUPERHUMAIN Neuroleadership coaching and/or Training?

Take advantage of our extensive experience coaching leaders worldwide and our deep expertise in designing neuroleadership corporate training solutions for your teams. No matter which stage of leadership you are at, we can partner with you and meet your business needs. Explore our executive coaching programs, corporate training courses, or hire Alan Caugant as your speaker so that your organization will become more agile, adaptive, and future-resilient.