At the beginning of each year, I pick one concept or behavior on which to focus. One year I explored and practiced the various pieces and parts of emotional intelligence. Another year I examined compassion and encouragement. This year it is psychological safety. Frankly, as I look back over my life, I have failed at this one in many ways.
I talk about behavior that creates psychological safety in my leadership workshops and writing but have never named it as the reason for the behavior. However, the concept is one that it took Google three years to pin down, so I don’t feel too bad about not seeing it clearly. I am proud that if you take my online class called Boot Camp for New (and Lightly-Trained) Supervisors and do what it says, you create psychological safety for you and your employees without knowing its name.
So, what is psychological safety? Psychological safety exists in a relationship when the people in the relationship feel free to say what’s on their minds or make a mistake. No one fears angry yelling, being made fun of, or people saying mean things behind their backs. There may be consequences for a mistake or an action, but there is no punishment for speaking your mind or taking a risk. The essence of psychological safety for me is the phrase “feels free.”
I first got the name, the handle for this thing, from a friend of mine named George. George is an old PR guy who does an amazing job of keeping up with the current world. He read an article about Project Aristotle, which is a massive research project done by Google, and insisted that I read it.
Google had studied management and managers and had a list of successful characteristics of leaders, but still there were some teams that outperformed others. Now, everyone at Google is smart and motivated, so you would think that all the teams would do equally well. However, some teams definitely did much better than others, so they decided to figure out why.
It took three years for the research team to figure it out. Their first discovery was that the best teams’ success had something to do with group norms. Then, they worked to determine the exact group norms. In the end, they found that the groups with the highest performance were the ones that had psychological safety.
The leaders of the exceptional groups created an atmosphere of openness and acceptance. The members of the team felt that they could disagree and not be punished for it. An honest disagreement and discussion were acceptable – even encouraged. Taking intelligent risks was also encouraged. The team could try innovative ideas without fear of being belittled or punished.
I see a lack of psychological safety in lots of relationships outside work. I hear people talking all the time about not telling a spouse about a purchase or mistake because they don’t want the hassle of their partner questioning them and making them feel bad. When anyone feels they must hide things or keep secrets for fear of reprisal, there is no psychological safety. I believe most of us feel that way in at least one or two relationships in our lives. The more important the relationship, the more psychological safety is needed.
I, for one, am tired of hiding who I am, what I think, and what I do. This year, I plan to master the communication and leadership skills needed to ensure that I and everyone who I am in a relationship with don’t feel those needs. I think exploring and mastering the creation of psychological safety could be a turning point for me in my life.
I am so grateful to my friend George for insisting that I read the Project Aristotle research. It’s a new lens through which I am choosing to view life. You are welcome to join me – or not. No repercussions here, only psychological safety.
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