We’ve examined many aspects of psychological safety and its importance. Now let’s get to the crux of the issue: How does a leader create psychological safety?
Google published a list of things that a leader can do to foster psychological safety. You can find it here. Scroll to the bottom of the page, and you can download a full-page list. There are five categories with bullet points under each. Here are the categories:
- Demonstrate engagement
- Show understanding
- Be inclusive in interpersonal settings
- Be inclusive in decision-making
- Show confidence and conviction without appearing inflexible
There is also a YouTube video of Amy Edmondson discussing her findings about psychological safety at the link above. Here is the link to the video on YouTube if you want to go right to it. She explains psychological safety clearly with some great examples. I’d read some of her work but hadn’t seen the video before now.
Edmondson says that we have a great strategy for self-protection that robs a group of psychological safety. Psychologists call it impression management. We don’t want to look ignorant, incompetent, intrusive, or negative so we don’t ask questions, don’t admit mistakes, don’t offer ideas, and don’t criticize the status quo. This list created a light bulb for me. I see these behaviors all the time in the people and groups that I work with. Edmondson says that we’ve mastered this strategy by elementary school.
Her suggestions for creating psychological safety are:
- Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
- Acknowledge our own fallibility.
- Model curiosity and ask a lot of questions.
I think she summed it up best when she said that we want to create an environment where we are not afraid of each other. Wow. That comment hit me. We do walk around most of the time fearing the reactions of others. What a waste of time and energy. Honestly, disapproval and humiliation are not fatal.
Before I discovered Edmondson’s list of ways to create psychological safety, I came up with my own. Here are my suggestions:
- Use verbal and nonverbal communication to show that you are present and that you care. No one cares what you know until they know that you care. It sounds like a platitude, but I find it to be very true. One of the ways to show that we care is to listen attentively.
- Enforce and model respect for self and others. I was a Boy Scout leader for many years and strictly enforced one rule: Nice words or no words. It was amazing to see how each boy flourished when he didn’t have to worry about being embarrassed or ridiculed. Being respectful also means being on time and doing what you say you are going to do.
- Be inclusive. Being inclusive means including others in the decision-making process and sharing the rationale for decisions. We want to ask for feedback and keep everyone in the loop as much as possible.
- Stay focused. Great leaders will keep a discussion and a process on track and moving forward. It’s detrimental to allow a group to meander around without a purpose or goal. Effective leaders must run meetings, processes, and projects with an eye to the ultimate goal and be sure the team knows what those goals and standards are. Individuals are most effective when they feel that what they do has an impact; a leader must make the connection between organizational success and the actions that the team complete.
- Be positive. Being positive covers a lot of territory, but it does not mean that the leader needs to maintain a constantly cheerful attitude. It means looking at people and events in a positive light as much as possible. Being positive includes actively looking for the good things that people are doing and commenting on them. It means looking at failure as a learning experience instead of the end of the world. A leader also is being positive when he or she expresses gratitude for a job well done.
I like my list and think it’s doable. From now on, I think I will grab “model curiosity” off Edmondson’s list and add it to mine. When I talk about Gottman’s list of communication toxins (aka the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) in workshops, the antidote for all of them is curiosity.
Creating an optimal team environment requires a lot of the leader of the team. Usually a leader needs some help in self-assessment and behavior change. It’s important to note that behavior change is difficult if one tries to do it alone. Most people find change easier and faster if they have someone to help. I’ve seen coaching help people make amazing transformations.
If you are interested in reaping the benefits of psychological safety in your personal and professional relationships, I’d love to go on that journey with you.
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