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Psychological safety is the topic that I am dissecting in 2018, and I’m taking it in very small steps because it is a very complex concept. If it doesn’t make sense to you yet, hang in there! All will be revealed.

So far I’ve defined psychological safety here and talked about noticing it in my personal life here. When I’m playing around with a new topic, I like to look at the personal applications first. For me, those are easiest to see and grasp because I’m analyzing familiar situations and people.

However, the concept of psychological safety comes from a study of work teams done by Google called Project Aristotle. Some of Google’s teams were doing better than others, and after years of research they discovered that psychological safety was the main component of the high-performing teams.

Of course, I’ve come across many places that lack psychological safety in my years as a leadership trainer. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen many organizations or teams with psychological safety, which is why this concept intrigues me. It’s obviously not easy to create, or everyone would be doing it.

The best example I’ve seen is in a fictional workplace described in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The book is in story format and worth looking at as a positive model for creating psychological safety. I highly suggest reading it. It’s been one of the books in my leadership series for a decade.

In the story, Kathryn comes in as CEO of a floundering business. We meet her team at a series of meetings that Kathryn leads. The book never uses the term “psychological safety,” but it is exactly what Kathryn is creating. She encourages disagreement with respect. She calls out one sarcastic team member on her eye rolls at other people’s comments. She creates a safe environment for people to speak their minds and teaches them how to do it in a professional way.

Here is a diagram of the five dysfunctions of a team.

five_dysfunctions pyramid

We will talk about the entire pyramid as we go along, but let’s just look at the foundation first. The success of a highly functioning team is dependent on trust. That makes sense. I don’t feel free to share my ideas with you unless I trust you to listen with an open mind. I must also trust that you won’t belittle me or plot behind my back. A team cannot function well if team members aren’t sharing information and working to achieve team and organizational goals.

There are entire books about trust. It’s also a complex concept. Let’s start simply. First, I don’t trust you if you don’t trust me. Ok, that sounds simple, but it isn’t really. Can you see the chicken and the egg problem that we face? I must trust you before you will trust me. However, I don’t want to trust you until you trust me. Ack!

Fortunately for us all, we humans generally extend a small level of trust to someone when we first meet them. We then have an opportunity to build that trust or destroy it. Creating and maintaining a high level of trust is a difficult thing to do. I trust people who are dependable, who do what they say, who respond reasonably, and who don’t make me feel small or stupid. The people I trust most are consistently reasonable and kind – which doesn’t mean that they must be pushovers. A person can give me developmental feedback that strengthens our relationship if it is done with respect and kindness.

So, if we are all consistently respectful and kind, we can create psychological safety – and maybe world peace. Sounds easy. It would be easy if we weren’t dealing with other humans who have their own fears, beliefs, and bad days. Easier still if we didn’t have our own fears, beliefs, and bad days.

Humans! Our humanity and flaws can really get in the way of creating trust and psychological safety. In my experience, our egos and the need to be right are two of our biggest stumbling blocks to consistent respect and kindness.

So, that’s enough for this week. We know that psychological safety is dependent on trust. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is an excellent model for creating trust and psychological safety. If those topics interest you, I’d recommend reading the book. It’s a quick read, and we will be discussing it further.

As you go out in the world, analyzing your level of trust is a good exercise. When you interact with people at home, work, or during your volunteer activities, ask yourself if you trust them. Then ask why or why not. What specific behaviors have they done that build or destroy trust? It’s also a good idea to assess whether you believe people trust you. Do they feel free to share ideas and failures with you? What actions have you done that would make those people trust you more or less?

We are defining the first foundational pieces of creating psychological safety. I can hear you thinking, “Some people are not trustworthy, and I could never have psychological safety around them.” I hear it all the time in workshops. One step at a time! First we raise awareness, and then we decide what to do about it. Patience, Padawan! We will get there. And patience is also a trait we are going to need to create psychological safety.

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at KSTorrey@tapferconsulting.com.

For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at KathyStoddardTorrey.com.

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at PositiveEffectLeadership.com.

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at KSTorrey@tapferconsulting.com.