The psychology behind safety
In 2012, Google launched a project called ‘Project Aristotle’, in which they set out to find out what makes a perfect team. 180 teams across the company were studied by a host of expert researchers: statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists and engineers. But despite their determination to find a common factor that all high-performing teams shared, researchers could not find a pattern. It was at this point that they came across the concept of psychological safety in academic papers. As the award-winning science writer, Charles Duhigg, put it in the New York Times, “it was as if everything suddenly fell into place.”
The term “psychological safety” was introduced by behavioural scientist, Amy Edmondson to describe “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” An employee who feels psychologically safe feels included in a team, free to learn, and free to challenge the status quo without fear of being embarrassed or marginalised.
Project Aristotle revealed that psychological safety was that overarching factor that all high-performing teams had in common. As articulated by Laura Delizonna in Harvard Business Review, “studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — just the types of behavior that lead to market breakthroughs.”
There are neurobiological reasons that explain the correlation between psychological safety and performance. When we feel threatened, whether it is by a competitive coworker or a consequence of getting something wrong, the amygdala is activated, inciting the fight-or-flight response. “This ‘act first, think later’ brain structure shuts down perspective and analytical reasoning,” Delizonna expounds. “While that fight-or-flight reaction may save us in life-or-death situations, it handicaps the strategic thinking needed in today’s workplace.”
On the other hand, when our environments are challenging but not threatening, oxytocin levels in our brains rise, making us feel more trusting of one another. Barbara Lee Fredrickson, an American professor in the department of psychology at the University of North Carolina, has found that positive emotions like trust promotes positive language and behaviours. “When we feel safe in our environments, we become more open-minded, resilient, motivated. Humor increases, as does solution-finding and divergent thinking — the cognitive process underlying creativity,” Delizonna explains.
How can we cultivate psychological safety?
How do we go about cultivating environments where workers feel psychologically safe? One of the key aspects is trust, as Simon Sinek identifies in his seminal Infinite Game. “When we work on a Trusting Team we feel safe to express vulnerability,” he explains.
“We feel safe to raise our hands and admit we made a mistake, be honest about shortfalls in performance, take responsibility for our behaviour and ask for help.”
“There’s no team without trust,” says Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google. He emphasises that in order to create psychologically safe environments, we should “approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary”. This means that rather than trying to prove that we are right, we should instead look for an outcome that is beneficial for all.
To do this, Santagata emphasises that we should always “speak human to human”. He proposes that we partake in a reflection called “Just Like Me”, considering statements like “this person has beliefs, perspectives, and opinions, just like me”, “this person has friends, family, and perhaps children who love them, just like me” and “this person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like me”.
Santagata also suggests that curiosity is a positive behaviour to resolve conflict. According to John Gottman’s research at the University of Washington, blame can often escalate into conflict, leading to defensiveness and disengagement. “The alternative to blame is curiosity,” Delizonna explains.
“If you believe you already know what the other person is thinking, then you’re not ready to have a conversation.”
An integral part of creating a psychologically safe environment is recognising that leaders too, can make mistakes or benefit from contributions. “Asking for feedback on how you delivered your message disarms your opponent, illuminates blind spots in communication skills, and models fallibility, which increases trust in leaders,” Delizonna explains.
“When we stop hiding our true selves and become vulnerable, our work environment is more enjoyable—and productive—for all,” says team-work and leadership expert Mike Robbins. “This means showing up authentically, leading with humility, and remembering that we’re all vulnerable, imperfect human beings doing the best we can. It’s also about having the courage to take risks, speak up, ask for help, and connect with others in a genuine way, allowing ourselves to be seen.”
What happens when employees feel psychologically safe?
When we start to engage with each other as human beings, we can create an atmosphere where employees feel safe to bring their full selves to work. “Organizational messages that endorse winning at all costs or prioritizing self-promotion also undermine compassion at work,” says psychologist Jill Suttie. “Instead, infusing work with a sense of meaning that includes the alleviation of suffering can transform a workplace.”
Simon Sinek, in The Infinite Game uses an example of a workshop conducted at Shell URSA, the biggest offshore deepwater drilling platform that Shell Oil Company had ever built. The programme required coworkers to get to know each other “not just as coworkers but as humans” – discussing their childhoods and relationships, their fears and insecurities. Whilst workers were initially skeptical, they were able to build a team in which each individual felt psychologically safe. This was manifested in the way the team operated from then on. As Sinek concludes:
“Without Trusting Teams, all the cracks in an organisation are hidden or ignored. Which, if that continues for any length of time, will compound and spread until things start to break. Trusting Teams, therefore, are essential to the smooth running of any organisation. And on an oil rig, it actually saves lives.”
“How companies treat their employees comes through in the interactions that customers have with them,” states Chris Evans, UK country manager of Intuit QuickBooks. “The same is true for the way businesses treat their suppliers.” In such volatile and uncertain times, it will be more important than ever to fully utilise the potential of a workforce to find solutions to the challenges head.
To emerge well from the crisis, companies must avoid putting profits before the welfare of workers, and recognise that company success rests upon putting employee safety first. “Contrary to popular belief, cultivating a high-trust culture is not a “soft” skill — it’s a hard necessity,” argue Stephen M. R. Covey and Douglas R. Conant in Harvard Business Review.