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How Leaders can Develop High-Performance Teams using ‘Psychological Safety’

What is Psychological Safety and why is it fundamental to high-performing teams?

Amy Edmondson, an Organizational Behavioural Scientist coined the term ‘Team Psychological Safety’ (TPS) in 1999, which she defined as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

In layman’s terms, Psychological Safety in the workplace basically means that you feel safe to be yourself among your peers in your team. You thus feel comfortable enough in your team to contribute and learn, as well as to challenge or question things without feeling scared and worried about being embarrassed, penalised or even reprimanded because of it.

Team Leaders play an integral part to increase team members’ Psychological Safety by building relationships with their members. There are many benefits of creating TPS within organisational teams. For starters, it helps team members learn from their mistakes. It assists with employee engagement and enhances innovation and creativity.

Leaders who make their team members feel included and promote participation makes for happy team members, improve the staff morale and enhance workplace wellness. If team members feel Psychologically Safe, they feel accepted, important, heard, trusted, respected and therefore very comfortable to take interpersonal risks within the team dynamics, resulting in these high-performing teams.

Ways Leaders can Increase Psychological Safety to Create High-Performance Teams

Research indicates that when people feel safe within their workspace, they actively participate and contribute towards achieving goals. This naturally amplifies their work performance. Leaders should lead by example and show their team members that it is okay to make mistakes. They should not be afraid to admit and apologise when an error occurs. Remaining humble in the process will have a positive effect on their team members’ interpersonal skills.

“Safe-feeling” employees take risks for example like opening up, commenting, voicing their opinions, as well as come up with creative ideas more voluntary because they know they have the support of their fellow team members and leader. Consider the following 5 pointers when wanting to create TPS:

  1. Self-awareness and Emotionally Intelligent

Good leaders who are emotionally intelligent are self-aware and show empathy. These skills give them the confidence and equip them to ‘put themselves in other’s shoes’ and thus will understand their team members’ wants and needs better. They don’t lead from their own point of view but from the point of view of their team members. A self-aware leader promotes self-awareness in team members. They encourage team members to share their unique work styles, determine each member’s strong points and build on that.

  1. Effective Communication, Feedback and Active Listening

“Speaking up is only the first step. The true test is how leaders respond when people actually do speak up. Stage setting and inviting participation indeed build psychological safety. But if a boss responds with anger or disdain as soon as someone steps forward to speak up about a problem, the safety will quickly evaporate. A productive response must be appreciative, respectful, and offer a path forward.”― Amy C. Edmondson, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth

Create a workplace environment where it is okay to “speak-up”. Your team should feel safe to talk about anything, ask questions and engage with one another. Promote curiosity, conversation and participation during meetings. Establish upward communication channels that are open and that they feel comfortable using. Provide them with continuous and constructive feedback without criticizing them negatively.

Listen actively before you speak or reply. It is important to make eye contact and be aware of your body language. Team members who feel like their leaders pay attention to what they are saying and respond positively, will in turn create a feeling that their opinions, thoughts and ideas matter. This does not mean the leader should always agree with team members, but merely suggests that leaders should evaluate how they respond and communicate.

  1. Motivation and Team building

“Many managers confuse setting high standards with good management”, says Amy C Edmondson. Demanding performance but not “setting the stage” as Edmondson puts it, will not make a high-performance team. Make your team members feel like they are part of a family or a safe community within the workplace. Things like negative office politics or talking behind another team member’s back is not on! This can break morale, trust, respect, motivation and will surely divide the team. Build trust between the members and don’t tolerate negativity. Negative vibes are contagious. Become your team members’ cheerleader. Recharge their batteries through your own positivity, optimism and motivation. It can be very difficult to be the light of positivity in trying times, but it will have a ripple effect towards others to shine as well.

  1. Problem-Solving and Decision-making 

The big focus of Psychological Safety within a high performance team is interpersonal risk taking. This refers to things like sharing ideas, opinions etc. without the fear of humiliation or some form of punishment. Conflict can create this fear when the team member is taking the risk to open up or makes mistakes. Errors, conflict and problems are inevitable when you have a team of people who are human and diverse. Each individual brings a unique personality, background differences, social differences, different skills and different beliefs to the table. Team leaders should discourage sarcasm; negative, angry and potentially hurtful wording as well as placing blame. Rather redirect the team’s focus on finding positive solutions through promoting sharing their experiences and creative ideas. Nothing destroys Psychological Safety in a team like reacting aggressively and negatively in the case of errors and conflict. To build and maintain the psychological safety within the team requires the leader to handle conflict, problem solving and decision making in a healthy and positive way.

  1. Rethink Hiring and Skills Development

There is a big difference between knowing and doing. Hire people who will fit in well with the company’s culture. Don’t only look at their technical skills, but evaluate if they have the critical soft skills. If you regularly upskill your people it will enable them to practically apply the knowledge and skills within their teams. They will know what to look for and what to do to make others around them feel Psychological Safe. Strong Emotional Intelligence, Effective Communication, Problem-solving, Decision-making, Conflict Resolution and Leadership skills are some of the most critical skills, companies need to create TPS to establish high-performance teams. 

Teams are there to collectively overcome and solve challenges and achieve objectives. If the team that you are in, feels like your “safe circle of friends” where you can be yourself, are supported and feel accepted, rather than a complete bunch of strangers who don’t know a thing about you or what makes you tick; you will naturally have a strong sense of Psychological Safety within that team, increasing higher performance.