By Nick James Smith
If your team is perfect, then you can stop reading. If you and your colleagues already feel completely safe to share ideas, work in a culture of total reciprocal trust and respect and are happy to collaborate closely even when things go wrong, then this article is not for you. If however, this seems like a far-off utopia and as you look at the interactions people have around you, you can see that they are not always ideal then read on. This may be due to a lack of what Amy Edmondson terms ‘psychological safety’.
Psychological safety is about creating an environment that is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, where people know that they can voice their thoughts without unworthy judgement and consequently will experiment, learn and grow. It doesn’t happen overnight but a new team can start working towards this kind of atmosphere from the beginning. An older team is also able to gradually become like this.
It’s easy to see that team members’ willingness to speak up, contributing ideas, suggestions, feedback or criticisms, is vital to the team’s good performance. Otherwise innovation and growth are likely to be non-existent, standards will not be met and no-one will be held accountable. Likewise, there will be poorer co-operation if untrusting people are less willing to collaborate with others or if they are scared of experimenting because of the consequences of failure. A final danger is that when things go wrong, and even in the best of your organisations they will at times, people are unwilling to voice their real thoughts in order for the team to reflect, learn and move on.
Whilst helping people to experience psychological safety will not be a silver bullet answer to your team’s problems, it will help to avoid the dangers listed above. Sadly, it’s not always straightforward to implement but is something that as team leaders we need to work hard at fostering; creating the right kind of conditions for it to thrive. If you’re not responsible for others though, keep reading, because my experiences this summer have led me to wonder if we can lay all the responsibility for this positive culture at the feet of those who lead us; I suspect that as team members we too have a part to play.
What leaders can do
Be accessible and approachable, open to listening to what team members are saying, not simply focussing on the bits you want to hear. Acknowledge their contribution and don’t rubbish it. Remember that your accessibility and acknowledgement are related to their perceptions of you, not your own – you ‘know’ how easy you are to talk to and how much you value the words of others but make sure it’s been made obvious to them too. Everyone wants to be valued and listened to, but it is also good behaviour to model, for team members to copy. However, rather than simply listening when spoken to, actively encourage your workers to give input. Once they realise that you are serious about listening to them they will start to respond to your offer. For a pre-existent team, unused to this style of leadership, it might be cynically slow going at the start – ‘does my boss really want to know what I think?’ – but keep persevering. Take the risk out of speaking up and benefit from the value of the unexpected and unsolicited.
When you don’t know something, admit it. Don’t try and bluster your way out or fob folks off with political non-answers. Nobody expects you to know everything and being humble enough to admit your limits doesn’t make you look bad, just human. Be willing to find out, if it is important, and keep learning more. Develop a growth mindset that says you still have things that you can learn; further improvement is always possible. Likewise, when you make mistakes or don’t perform as expected, assuming these moments are the exception not the norm, then be open. Unless you have taken to wearing your pants over your tights with a big S on your shirt, people will accept it. Again, this is good behaviour to model for the team – you really don’t need others covering up their mistakes because it removes some of the team’s learning experiences. Help people to realise that it is safe for them to be themselves, warts and all.
Use the f-word sparingly. When failure occurs, it is simply a deviation from the desired outcome, not the end of the world. Take the weight of guilt and responsibility off others’ shoulders by accepting what has happened. This may be another slow-burn culture change but stick at it because it’s necessary to bring people to a point of admitting that results aren’t ideal, which in itself is a prerequisite for learning from the event. If you have framed failure in such a way that people recognise it is a precursor for growth and advancement they will become more open, and willing to delve deeper to the root causes. Remember that it will still hurt (for them and probably for you), because no-one likes to get it wrong, and be gentle where necessary.
Having said that though, hold people accountable. Don’t be so accepting of failure that people stop caring and allow standards to slip, but call people to account in a way that is fair and consistent. When they recognise that failure leads to learning they will be less anxious about being seen to err. It also helps beforehand to have really clear parameters of what is and is not acceptable. Nasty surprises after the event only add to someone’s mistake misery.
Through all of this, use unambiguous communication. When I say ‘be gentle’ it doesn’t mean fudging things. Be direct where necessary and call a spade by its real name so that there is clarity and people know where they stand. Confusion breeds concerns which are what we’re trying to avoid in the first place.
What a team member can do
So what if you’re not a leader? Having been a member of a team this year where the leader didn’t actively encourage a climate of psychological safety, it was left to group members to do what they could. I found it was surprisingly effective at one level although still not a substitute for a leader-modelled approach. None of it is really revolutionary and mirrors what is good practice for a leader, as detailed above. It’s still about treating people with trust and respect, even before they have earned it.
As team members we can make people feel welcome when they join the team; help them to see that they already have a place in the pre-existing structure. Yes, you have your own longer-standing friendships, but you need to open the door to let others in. Invite participation and show that you value it, in order to encourage it further. The thought may have been suggested before but celebrate their new-start keenness even if you already know the idea won’t fly. Ignoring suggestions or negating them is a sure way to turn off the tap. Finally help to propagate a culture of learning from failure, by being open and humble to admit your limits and display your own errors. By modelling some of these behaviours, we can help to mould the team culture to one where people feel safe enough that learning can take place.
We all want to feel comfortable in a team, so that we can say what we are thinking, understand other people and work more closely together. Whilst none of us want to fail, we will all deal better with it if there is learning and consequent growth born out of it. For that we all need to work to make our work a place that is psychologically safe.
Nick Smith is an Outdoor Life Coach and Personal Development Trainer. Within his company, Square Pegs Coaching, he uses outdoor experiences to help people develop themselves, in their life, work or both. By walking and talking together, people discover how they can take further steps in their journey of life. Although working mainly in Glasgow and the West of Scotland where he is based, Nick also travels around the UK – if you want to be coached by him then get in touch through his website at http://www.squarepegscoaching.com. There is more information there to help you understand the concepts of outdoor life coaching, background on Nick and the opportunity to book coaching when you are ready. The articles Nick writes appear first in his regular newsletter – to sign up to receive new articles and other offers, go to http://eepurl.com/fXEm. He also posts other thoughts and challenges on his blog on the website.