With contributions from Jose Davila, EVP, Chief People Officer at J.Crew Group & David Loya, Senior Director of Human Resources at Verdant Technologies
Since the beginning of time, fear has been a driver of human behavior. Fear helps keep us safe, excites us, and causes us anxiety. It’s a complex, deep-rooted emotion triggered by a perceived threat, be it a bear in the wild or having to deliver news of sub-par quarterly performance. The latter, no matter how sharp your manager’s teeth are, logically should not elicit the same response as a wild animal but that is not how our brains are wired.
What is psychological safety?
Coined in the late 1990s by Harvard Business School Professor Dr. Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Dr. Edmondson discovered that teams with good outcomes are better at admitting mistakes – and teams with fewer good outcomes are more likely to hide them.
In 2015, Google’s Project Aristotle released findings from a two-year internal study on team effectiveness and identified five key dynamics that set great teams apart from the rest of the pack, psychological safety being the most important dynamic by far. What they found is that who is on a team matters less than how the team works together.
When team members feel safe to make mistakes, express ideas, and share concerns without fear of embarrassment or rejection, something magical happens – better decisions are made, creativity and innovation flourish, risk is reduced, performance improves, and people are happier.
Psychological safety in the workplace today
“Especially in creative industries, change is coming fast and quick. This requires creatives to take more risks, since past lessons often do not apply in the current dynamic environment. With this increased risk taking, employees worry that if someone doesn’t have their back, and they fail, there will be a negative impact on their career. They need cover from their leader or team to handle this challenge,” said Jose Davila, EVP, Chief People Officer at J.Crew Group.
Growing emphasis on psychological safety in the workplace also stems from the pandemic, which pushed companies to focus on employee mental health and to evaluate the role of the work environment in either preventing or worsening mental health challenges. Employee expectations are also shifting. In a 2022 survey by the American Psychology Association, 71% of workers believe their employers are more concerned about their mental well-being than they were in the past.
“People rarely feel safe to ‘bring their whole selves’ to work. In larger organizations, it’s easier to put up walls without it being as noticeable. You are also more likely to find pockets of coworkers you do not feel the need to shield yourself from. In a smaller organization, there’s more pressure because everybody knows who you are,” said David Loya, Human Resources Director of Verdant Technologies.
“In my experience, it seems like the past couple of years have exacerbated issues related to how people treat others who are different or are just perceived to be different in a way,” said Loya. “It feels like we took a step back by a decade or two (maybe more). To truly create a safe workplace, we have to start with a genuine acceptance of people in all of our forms and flaws. Visible or under the surface, we all have nuances that define who we are and how we identify. If we feel excluded, we won’t ever truly feel safe and that will show up in our work and personal lives.”
Does your team feel psychologically safe at work?
An instrument to measure team psychological safety can be found on the aforementioned Dr. Edmondson’s website. Employees rate statements to measure how psychologically safe they feel at work, but there’s a caveat – the scores should not be taken as conclusive, and what leaders should focus on is the variance among team members. “Anyone filling out a survey is doing so in a way that is relative to their expectations,” Dr. Edmondson said in an HBR article. “For example, if I say ‘yes, I can ask for help’ I’m doing that relative to what I think it ‘ought’ to be.”
Below are the statements in the assessment instrument.
- If you make a mistake on this team, it is not held against you.
- Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
- People on this team sometimes accept others for being different.
- It is safe to take a risk on this team.
- It isn’t difficult to ask others on this team for help.
- No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents and efforts are valued and utilized.
People who work closely with one another are more likely to have similar levels of psychological safety, which can have positive or disastrous consequences on individuals and teams.
Feeling psychologically unsafe doesn’t necessarily stem from overt conflicts with a colleagues or supervisors. “The moments that have caused me to tread carefully range from blatant bias to subtle actions or words,” said Loya. “In all cases, the damage was the same. In fact, the less overt the instance, the greater impact some have had. There’s a verse in a country song that goes, ‘It wasn’t one big blow that brought our love down. It was the hairline cracks that took it to the ground. Just kept creeping over time, spreading like wildfire.’ Hairline cracks can culminate into a total collapse of confidence in an organization.”
How to foster psychological safety
“Research shows that there is great value in team psychological safety,” said Davila. “It doesn’t always need to come from a leader. Individual contributors are most likely engaged with a team in their work, and they can build psychological safety with each other despite the presence of a difficult leader. For instance, individual team members can consult with each other on difficult choices to gauge potential impact. Also, sharing an idea with a team member can provide an opportunity for positive feedback while leading to increased confidence in taking the risk for the individual.”
Leaders can foster psychological safety by turning difficult situations into learning moments. Ask: what did you learn? Reframing negative or fearful instances into opportunities to learn can diffuse mounting fears.
Davila shared a relevant example: “In a previous role, I had a new report who was still learning the function. She found herself in a situation where business ethics were questioned and was faced with a difficult choice on whether to confront an influential leader. In these cases, she and I worked together through several scenarios and tested different approaches. Throughout this process, I confided in her that this was a difficult situation with no correct answer. I assured her, however, that I was confident that even if the interaction did not go well, she would learn from her choice and have a better idea on how to deal with it next time.”
To foster psychological safety some other ways:
- Acknowledge your own shortcomings and admit errors. This can go a long way in restoring trust.
- Take the time to get to know people. Not their role and skills, but who they are.
- Be curious. Ask lots of questions.
- Learn to recognize signs that people are not engaged or are holding back. For example, does someone clam up when talking about weekend plans? Does the team dynamic change when certain people are in the room?
- Read the room and know when to engage. If you speak more than you listen, you are definitely missing something. When you do engage, do so productively.
- Think before you speak. Little things stand out, especially to those who feel marginalized, devalued, or are insecure. Your communication – words, tone, nonverbals – matter.
- Speak up for others.
Creating psychological safety can be difficult, especially when dysfunction arises in an environment where there was none previously, or when long-existing dysfunction must be repaired. Admitting mistakes is uncomfortable. Getting to know a colleague deeply can cause us to change how we interact and communicate. Being more human means being more vulnerable, and vulnerability develops strength, resilience, and creativity in ourselves, in our teams, and in our organizations.
Author’s note: In my interview questions to Jose Davila, I asked him the following, with the caveat that the question would make Richard Spoon, my boss and President of ArchPoint Consulting, squirm and likely not make it into the piece. His answer was incredibly insightful.
Question: “Psychological safety is being able to trust people with your emotional needs – which is a form of love. Is there a connection here between love and psychological safety? We’re expected to “love our jobs.” How can we bridge thinking about others in our organizations in an appropriate loving manner vs. thinking about people as simply coworkers?”
Answer: “You are right he will cringe! Love is a polarizing term because it is difficult to see beyond the romantic and familial aspects of its use. That being said, you think of a family or partner, the notion of unconditional love is well accepted. For me, unconditional love is accepting someone for who they are, respecting their actions and judgement, trusting in their choices and always being there for them. Sounds a lot like psychological safety, right?”