Many of us, at some point, have been part of a team that hasn't performed well. Think about a meeting where half the room is stuck in politeness and afraid to speak up. Others are stuck in the negative loop or blame game, pointing fingers at everyone else and not taking responsibility for their actions. People are talking behind each other's backs and not having open conversations about their issues or concerns. Nobody is calling each other out on what could be done better while others are feeling left out of the conversation altogether. Underperforming teams often are the result of low levels of psychological safety and leaders who pressure and force people to achieve targets at all costs.
When a leader is only concerned about his or her agenda and doesn't empower the team to contribute their ideas, people don't share feedback or report mistakes for fear of retribution. Feeling unsafe, employees are afraid to speak up and raise issues instead of having respectful and constructive conversations that lead to transparency. Fear of humiliation or judgment and politeness quickly leads to low levels of team collaboration, trust and engagement. Using fear as a motivator is not only common in the workplace but has become the rule in many organizations.
Harvard professor Amy Edmondson explained the importance and impact of psychological safety in teams and how organizations benefit from creating a culture where people feel like they can speak up. Through her research, she observed how companies with a trusting workplace perform better. Fear gets in the way of creativity, flexibility and flow. It crushes innovation and creates tunnel vision where the focus is on the problem rather than possible solutions. Humans in a state of fear or survival are not able to think clearly and objectively. This way of leading a team and driving people to achieve results is not sustainable and creates unhealthy dynamics.
Below are five strategies to create a culture that immediately enhances psychological safety and team performance:
1. Assess what's going on in the room.
The first step to increasing psychological safety in an organization is to measure the team's current state. As a certified psychological safety coach, I have an assessment tool to measure the level of psychological safety on teams that allow each employee to anonymously rate their perceived level of psychological safety. It then calculates the team's average, providing data to leaders who can easily identify the level of psychological safety on their team and see where the gaps are. I encourage you to devise something similar, like an anonymous survey that can be used to gauge how your team is feeling. Once awareness is brought to light, you can determine what's needed to address and improve the team's overall performance.
2. Ask questions.
Instead of providing solutions, leaders want to invite engagement and encourage people to contribute. Using the team as a source of knowledge and asking directly for ideas and suggestions without judging them afterward will quickly lead to increased engagement. Think of one or two simple ways to make the described behaviors actionable. For instance, you could take the last five to 10 minutes of a regular team meeting to inquire about the quality of the interaction. Simply ask, "What did we think of this meeting?" and practice active listening during that block of time. Don't step in to solve. Just listen.
Once employees know that their input matters and their voice makes a difference, they are far more likely to go beyond the expected to find solutions. Assure them that their help is appreciated and be genuinely interested in what they have to say, even if the response is critical. Give room for constructive feedback.
3. Talk about uncertainty and interdependency.
Naturally, people want to look good in front of others, especially their managers. Taking risks and asking for help is much harder when there is a fear of being criticized or judged. When people give themselves permission to fail and learn, the faster and more efficient solutions can be identified. Knowing that others are there to support them without the risk of embarrassment, they are more likely to make suggestions even if they are not sure. In this case, leaders have to go first and set an example to give others the confidence to be humble. Having situational humility as a manager and admitting to not knowing all the answers creates a culture of learning and collaboration.
5. Frame issues as learning problems.
Acknowledge fallibility and encourage everyone to admit mistakes and ask for help. Teach people to say things like “I may have missed..." "I need to hear from you..." "I need you to speak up when I am missing something...” Responding productively to mistakes and admitting your own gives people the opportunity to open up and address issues before they become irreparable.
6. Be inclusive.
Think of all of the things that could cause people to think they are not part of the group. Not every team member will be able to integrate effortlessly, either because of something that you're doing or simply as a result of group dynamics. Make sure everyone feels involved, and have an open conversation if not. Psychological safety is a result of creating a safe space for everyone and making people feel included, whether it's including them in the conversation and asking for their valuable input or making sure that the entire team is invited to lunch or a team-building outing.
Psychological safety is the foundation of any healthy team. Leaders who want to get the most out of their people and increase team performance can do so by creating a safe space for everyone to speak up. In turn, not only will the group be more efficient but they'll also foster collaboration, bring more innovative ideas to the room and motivate each other.