Google’s often quoted Aristotle project established psychological safety as being the most important factor behind high-performance teams, ahead of dependability (counting on your team members’ support), structure and clarity (having clear goals, roles and action plans), meaning of work (the extent to which the team’s work is perceived to have value) and impact of work (the belief by team members that their work matters). Naturally, these are all important, but psychological safety is fundamental for team working, upon which all else is built.
Psychological safety is also incredibly important to build diverse and inclusive teams which, in turn, is key to fostering creativity and innovation. Indeed, according to a study by Korn Ferry, diverse and inclusive teams have been found to be much better at delivering higher growth (75 per cent) and higher profitability (36 per cent), getting faster to market (75 per cent), innovation (19 per cent), making better decisions (87 per cent) and having a bigger impact on performance (87 per cent) than their peers.
In a sense, the overall strategy to build psychological safety rests on the team leader’s ability to create strong connections with their team members and facilitating the same among them. This requires the team leader to be emotionally intelligent and purposeful in fostering psychological safety in their teams.
What, then, can team leaders do in practice, to build psychological safety? To develop psychological safety within their teams, team leaders need to assiduously:
- be vulnerable to build trust. Being vulnerable is not a sign of weakness but of strength and a show of self-confidence in being able to admit to a mistake, needing support or not knowing something. This helps to reinforce the fact that everybody makes mistakes or needs help and therefor it is OK for the rest of the team to admit when they make a mistake or need help.
- support and advocate for their team members within the wider organisational context and filter out negative external influences. Let your team members see that you have their back.
- connect personally with their team members individually. This requires the holding of regular one-to-one meetings where the main thrust is understanding how to better support the development of the team member, what their aspirations and fears are and generally showing that the team leader cares about the team member as a human being.
- engage their team members by seeking out their opinions, giving them due consideration and allowing open non-judgemental discussions. They need to ensure that everyone’s opinions are valued by one and all within the team. Above all, team leaders need to actively listen to their team – leadership is more about listening than speaking. Summarize what you heard to assure the team member feels understood.
- communicate positively, using non-directive language to allow the team member to express themselves fully. The team leader’s feedback needs to be fair and equitable, focusing on the individual’s strengths and achievement. In the face of something not working out, they should open with something similar to “What have you learned from this?” or “What are the options going forward?” rather than “Why did you do it that way?” as the latter tends to be judgemental. The team leader needs to be aware that their choice of words makes a big difference. It is also important for the team leader to evaluate how their feedback is being received and to adapt accordingly.
- ensure that their team members are clear about what the team needs to achieve, the importance of each individual member’s role in achieving it and what their contribution is expected to be. This creates a better understanding of what each team member is to expect from their colleagues.
- meaningfully acknowledge individual contributions and achievements. This helps to validate the effort and result achieved and again show that the team leader appreciates their contribution to the team.
- foster a thinking-outside-the box kind of mentality to promote experimenting with different approaches to those already tried. This amounts to the team leader giving team members permission to take calculated risks and, in a sense, make it safe to fail.
- build team values which promote norms that allows a psychologically safe environment to grow. Values underpin behaviours and once agreed to, create more certainty and hence less misunderstandings. Various tools, such as the Belbin Team Role Assessment or DiSC Assessments can help in this regard: knowing more about one another, helps the team create a framework of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour that makes interactions more predictable and hence safer.
- have and foster a growth mindset. Team leaders need to embrace a mindset of continuous learning, questioning what might have been missed, what could work better and generally reframing problems into challenges.
Fostering psychological safety within a team is a big responsibility for leaders and for which they are primarily accountable. The main point to note in all the above, however, is that these actions are all within the control of the team leader.