In a meeting room with your colleagues, bosses, and other company high-ups, you may be thinking to yourself that it’s a good time to take a risk. You could suggest an idea about a project you don’t know much about. Or, you could verbally disagree with one of your boss’s perspectives and provide critical feedback. Maybe you even want to admit to a few mistakes you’ve made on a recent assignment.

… Or not.

The actions listed above are uncomfortable. Most people wouldn’t feel confident enough to speak up in those ways given the setting.

Humans have an innate instinct to want to appear good, especially in hierarchy settings when superiors are present. Taking risks and admitting fault threatens our natural desire to look good and be well-received. Instead, we stay silent, keep to ourselves, don’t rock the boat, play it safe, and all of the other phrases which collectively allude to the fact that we don’t feel safe enough (in our job security, ideas, etc.) to speak up.

However, the culture these behaviors create is one that lacks innovation and consistent successful performance. We must combat our human desire to look good by challenging ourselves in currently unfamiliar ways. And it all begins with creating an environment of psychological safety in the workplace. 

What is Psychological Safety?

Amy C. Edmondson, Harvard Business School professor and author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, first coined the term psychological safety in 1999 to explain a dynamic in work teams. Psychological safety is known to improve performance, engagement, learning, and overall success. 

The term itself may be misleading, leaving audiences to interpret the meaning as everyone being happy and nice to each other. Instead, Edmondson explains how it is built on giving critical feedback, being direct, owning up to your mistakes, and asking for help when needed. Leaders play a key role in psychological safety because they can create the space for team members to comfortably disclose and be curious. 

To put it simply, Edmondson defines psychological safety in a 2014 TED Talk as, “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

How Can I Build Psychology Safety?

As a leader, you can do three simple activities, continuously, to create psychological safety

First, set the stage by explaining the project or situation so that everyone is on the same page. Recognize the uncertainty of the project and interdependence within the team. By framing the situation as a learning opportunity, you’re building confidence in team members to know they can speak up and won’t be wrong. Giving input and asking questions can be difficult, and leaders should have the empathy to understand that what they’re asking for is tough to do. But as a leader, you have to keep pushing team members to speak up even when they’re not confident enough to. 

Secondly, leaders can actively invite engagement by asking questions. What’s your take on the situation? What can we do better? How can I assist you? When the team member responds, listen actively and open-mindedly. In this moment, you’re creating a space of psychological safety for the other person to feel they can speak up and suggest ideas. 

Lastly, your responses should be productive. If a team member admits a mistake on a project, getting mad and expressing your anger will do no good in moving forward to fix the issue at hand. Feeling disappointed is okay, but putting anger on the person who was comfortable enough to disclosure their failure will scare them into not being as open in the future. They already know they messed upInstead, so a productive way to respond to this scenario is by helping them find a way to fix their mistake and move forward effectively. 

As a leader asking team members to be brave in taking risks and showing vulnerability, you have to be able to practice what you preach. Show your team that you’re fallible, tell them that you screwed up. Let your team know that you’re just as human as they are. According to Edmondson, “…leaders have to go first.”


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