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Psychological safety and new ways of working

Can you imagine working in a team where you feel it’s safe to raise issues, to make suggestions, disclose your mistakes and even to be a little vulnerable? Without fear of reprisal, ridicule or punishment? This is what psychological safety at work looks like.

As we hear more about agile and new ways of working, with cross functional and self-organised teams, we are hearing more about the importance of psychological safety for optimal performance and innovation. So now that psychological safety has come to the forefront, we could say it’s a ‘thing’!

Power and fear

My early exposure to the notion of psychological safety happened many years ago when I trained cabin crew at Qantas Domestic (formerly Australian Airlines). On an aircraft, human error can have significant, if not fatal results. Air safety investigations revealed that in many instances, it wasn’t only human error that caused aircraft accidents, but also the lack of communication between crew members. Following recommendations from the American based National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), we were introduced to Crew Resource Management (CRM) training.

CRM focussed on communication skills, particularly in the cockpit, with a proposed a framework to make it ‘safe’ for more junior crew members to raise concerns with their more senior colleagues, particularly the Captain. Eventually, this training was extended to cabin crew members, and for the first time, we saw joint safety training of cabin and cockpit crew at the airline training centre that still operates at Airport West in Melbourne.

This initiative, also endorsed by NASA, was innovative in a military-based chain of command culture with a high ‘authority gradient’ (also known as the ‘cockpit gradient’). The key objective of CRM was to create a work environment where it was safe to respectfully question a decision or raise a concern that would impact safety.

Not so new really

The term itself - psychological safety - isn’t entirely new. Back in the 1960s, it was flagged by MIT professors Edgar Shein and Warren Bennis as an essential ingredient for making people feel secure and receptive to change. It was later researched in 1990 by William Kahn, and in 1993, again by Schein. More recently, there’s been a revival through the work of Amy Edmondson, along with research carried out at Google and a model for Modern Agile.

More recent findings

Amy Edmondson, a professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, carried out research on medical teams. She quickly discovered it was actually the better performing teams that were admitting to mistakes and discussing them openly. She went on to define psychological safety as a “shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”.

Since then, Google became increasingly curious about what made a perfect team and in 2012, Project Aristotle was born. Over two years, Google studied 180 of their own teams with hundreds of interviews and through engaging numerous experts. The research uncovered five elements that make up a successful team, with psychological safety clearly being the most important factor. Google reported that team members experiencing high levels of psychological safety were less likely to leave the organisation, were more innovative and rated as higher performers overall by senior colleagues.

If you haven’t already heard about Joshua Kerievsky’s Modern Agile framework, head over and take a look. Psychological safety gets a guernsey in his framework. Joshua K’s modern agile approach is shaped by four guiding principles: make people awesome, make safety a pre-requisite, experiment and learn rapidly and deliver value continuously. By ensuring safety, we unlock high performance as safety is a basic human need. In his many presentations at Agile conferences, Joshua explains what a culture of psychological safety looks like with the three armed sweater awards at Etsy and a 3 Michelin Star restaurant in Italy.

How does it look for you?

If you are already working in an environment of psychological safety - great news, happy days! Think about what is making it safe, and how can you help perpetuate that feeling.

Creating a place of psychological safety should be the norm, not the exception.

As I say over and over, new ways of working means new ways of everything, including the way we lead others and behave as team members.

It makes sense that a perception of threat or fear will impair performance and productivity.

If we want to invite divergent thinking, promote curiosity, and help our people thrive in an environment of ambiguity and complexity, they need to feel safe to speak up, experiment, fail and learn.

Whether or not we are formal leaders, it’s about rethinking the behaviours we model each day. There are small things we can do to support and create a culture where it’s safe to bring our best and whole selves to work. Often, it’s simply the awareness of what’s happening (or not) that prompts observation, reflection and then action.

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