The positive impact of psychological safety in teams

| September 7, 2018

There has been a lot of research on the positive impact of psychological safety in teams. Teams that feel safe can share ideas, find creative solutions to problems and develop new ways of working. I got a chance to speak with author, Dr. Amy Silver, to learn more about psychological safety and the impact it has on teams and team dynamics.

In her words; without psychological safety, we don’t have collective intelligence, we have fear-based intelligence.

How important is psychological safety and what happens when a team doesn’t have it?

In their Aristotle study, Google has shown that psychological safety is the number one determinant of highly effective teams. This builds upon years of academic research on the positive impact of psychological safety.

Having psychological safety enables everyone in the group to contribute regardless of hierarchy, role, or expectations. In this instance, we can draw upon the total collective intelligence of the group.

If we don’t have psychological safety, we use fear to mediate our contributions to a team. We are not able to contribute whatever’s in our heads as we limit ourselves through the fear of judgment, the fear of being ridiculed, the fear of being discounted, or the fear of going against expectations. Without psychological safety, we don’t have collective intelligence. We have fear-based intelligence.

Can you expand on what you mean by fear-based intelligence?

This is when we reduce our contribution to the group to what we think we are legitimately able to contribute. Anything more than that will be restricted by fear. That is, we can only contribute up to the boundary of which we would feel fear. Whereas what we need to achieve is courage.

The courage to innovate, the courage to have difficult conversations, the courage to come up with off-the-wall suggestions, and the courage to point out risks when hierarchy would say ‘that’s not your place’. We need a lot of courage to collaborate effectively.

So, although we may be very smart and have some great ideas, that intelligence becomes trapped and the individuals within the team can’t access it.

What are some tips to help develop psychological safety in teams?

There are three things we need. We’ve got to understand how to trigger the best of ourselves, we must trigger the best of other people, and we need to have a clear collective goal.

First, individuals must understand and take responsibility for the psychological safety they bring to a group. We need to be aware of the cultural norming and behavioural expectations that have been drilled into us from a young age.

So, regardless of which group I’m going into, I have a responsibility to enable the best of me, understand what my biases and limitations, to deal with my issues, and make myself psychologically safe to contribute. This way I’m am not limited in the contribution that I can make.

Second, is to understand that what we do as an individual impacts on the psychological safety of others. To understand that we have an impact and can increase or decrease the psychological safety of other people in our team? We need to be self-aware and ask, ‘what am I doing that makes people feel that they can contribute more’.

Third, we need a shared collective goal. Without it, the cost of collaboration is too great. Ultimately, if we don’t know why we’re a team and what the point is, then psychological safety goes down.

What’s the best example you’ve seen of a safe team?

A team that I was working with this week managed to get to the point where two members were able to identify that they had very different communication styles and, while they valued each other, they each found the other really irritating.

What that meant was that, in a conversation, neither of them felt that they could contribute because they felt irritated or wound up and didn’t think the other person understood them or cared. So, they shut down.

The safety that they have worked with me to develop in the team now means they are able to have a difficult, but safe, conversation about it. They were able to come up with a plan of how they wouldn’t shut each other down or start raising their eyebrows when they were irritated, throwing down a pen when they were frustrated, or showing other social cues that would make the other person feel judged.

In the safe space we have created for them, they were able to have a conversation and come up with a plan of action to get to a better outcome.

Your talk at the conference is ‘The Safe Space – how to lead a courageous team’. What can attendees expect to learn from you?

Psychological safety is a key component of teams working effectively. That’s a well-known fact now. Yet many people don’t know how to create it or what’s involved. I hope that people coming to the talk will gain a clearer understanding of how psychological safety relates to courage and how to maximize the collective intelligence of a group using good communication and effective relationships.

Dr. Amy is a psychologist, speaker, author and mentor on building cultures of courageous collaboration. She has spent the last three decades researching fear and habit restrict our growth and achievement. She is speaking at the Business Agility Conference in Sydney on September 24-25 on ‘The Safe Space – how to lead a courageous team’. Get your ticket to hear Amy speak here.

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Evan is the founder and CEO of the Business Agility Institute; an international membership body which champions the development of agile, innovative and dynamic organisations. He is the author of Directing the Agile Organisation.