Psychological safety was first defined by Harvard Business School researcher Amy Edmonson as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
Our question: What are best practices for rolling out psychological safety and maintaining it over time?
For owners of the talent agenda, the “why” is already settled: Study after study has shown that teams need psychological safety to thrive, and it contributes to positive effects in employee engagement, learning and development, and inclusion and belonging, not to mention productivity and business outcomes.
The “how” is harder, partly because the concept can feel like a nebulous one and partly because implementation happens via individual teams and team leaders, not organization-wide. “Psychological safety isn't something you can order or mandate,” explains journalist Charles Duhigg, author of Smarter Better Faster: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. (Duhigg is also an investor in Charter.) “What you need is leaders and team members who all buy into the idea.”
Some research does point to ways organizations can encourage psychological safety on a larger scale—for example, one 2010 study of 125 Chinese corporations describes positive effects of group rewards like shared bonuses and profit sharing on psychological safety. But as Duhigg noted in Smarter Better Faster, at least one large-scale real-world study of psychological safety, Google’s Project Aristotle, found that it required a high degree of norm setting and behavior modeling from team leaders.
Set your organization’s managers up for success by tailoring your resources to their level of familiarity with the concept.
Duhigg points to two basic practices team leaders can start implementing tomorrow: The first is conversational turn-taking, or moderating discussions so that all team members have roughly the same amount of speaking time. (In a previous interview with Charter, Carnegie Mellon researcher Anita Williams Woolley also highlighted an equal distribution of speaking time as a predictor of teams’ collective intelligence.)
The second is ostentatious listening, a practice that demonstrates active listening by repeating back team members’ contributions at a later point in the discussion. Both of these practices are markers of “leader inclusiveness,” which Edomonson and her colleague Ingrid Nembhard defined in a 2006 study as “words and deeds by a leader or leaders that indicate an invitation and appreciation for others’ contributions.” By surveying medical teams in 23 neonatal intensive care units, the researchers found that greater leader inclusiveness created more psychological safety within teams even across hierarchical power differentials, like between doctors and nurses.
At our 2021 Charter Workplace Summit, Paypal CHRO Kausik Rajgopal shared one tactic for jump-starting conversational turn-taking in meetings, inspired by a rule from the Supreme Court:“Nobody speaks twice until everybody speaks once.”
One way to listen ostentatiously is to summarize others’ contributions before moving on. This can take the form of asking, “What I’m hearing from you is… is that right?”
For managers with more knowledge and practice related to building psychological safety, toolkits, trainings, and 1:1s can include more varied practices, like those included on Google Re:Work’s checklist. Work with managers to identify and practice the skills that feel particularly difficult to them.
Some managers may need help learning to express vulnerability to their teams. Give them ideas of appropriate times to share individual failures, shortcomings, or insecurities. For example, a manager might share their own knowledge gaps or at the outset of a project, describe their experience struggling to master a skill, or publicly take responsibility for a failure related to the team’s work.
In the Harvard Business Review, London Business School professor Dan Cable shares more tactics for practicing vulnerability.
For deeper learning around psychological safety, use Edmonson’s Leader’s Tool Kit, first described in her 2019 book, The Fearless Organization. The framework describes the key steps leaders should take to build psychological safety at three different stages of a project: setting the stage, when leaders frame the work and emphasize a shared purpose; inviting participation by demonstrating situational humility, practicing inquiring, and creating opportunities for feedback and discussion; and responding productively to team member contributions and potential setbacks.
Edmonson’s article, “How fearless organizations succeed,” adapted from The Fearless Organization for PWC’s Strategy+Business, includes a description of The Leader’s Toolkit.
Tailor manager training to their level of familiarity with psychological safety.
Provide managers with sample agendas and scripts for 1:1s.
Put norms in place to ensure team members have equal speaking time, with a rule like “Nobody speaks twice until everybody speaks once.”
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