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How psychological safety unlocks your team’s potential

Every leader wants an innovative team that consistently produces its best work. It’s possible to unlock any team’s potential, regardless of skill set or training and development budget.

Psychological safety can transform a team with mediocre performance into one that is high-performing, innovative and agile. With psychological safety, the human need to be safe and belong is met, and organizations see effective teams with outstanding performance.

Amy Edmondson, author of “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth,” defines the term as a shared belief held by team members that it’s safe for interpersonal risk-taking. In this environment, it is safe to speak up without fear of punishment, embarrassment or retaliation, and individuals behave authentically.

A psychologically safe workplace is one in which individuals are connected. They can operate with a sense of autonomy, and they have a sense of shared understanding in which their competencies can shine. This emotional climate enables the team to bring their best work forward.

Executive and team coach Catherine Cheshire helps leaders and managers build psychological safety within their teams.

“We know how important psychological safety is, and we can’t just command it,” said Cheshire. “It has to be built and nurtured.”

Cheshire says leaders can build trust, which lays the groundwork for safety, by matching words and actions. By following through on what they say they’re going to do, leaders show they’re trustworthy. Small behaviors, especially by executives and leaders, add up.

But it’s not all on the leaders to create a psychologically safe climate. As a Team Emotional Intelligence (TEI) certified practitioner, Cheshire uses the Team EI Framework and Survey developed by Druskat & Wolff to help teams co-create norms and foster an environment that allows them to manage emotion effectively.

Some initial steps that any leader can take to start co-creating psychological safety with their team:

Create structures and rituals that support safety

Team members need to see consistency to know that safety isn’t just a facade. Easy-to-incorporate rituals can include expressing gratitude in stand-up meetings, sharing missteps over the past week, or setting meetings for team dialogue after a project is completed.

Use shared language

One company uses #EpicFail on Slack to communicate about mistakes. While few errors rise to “epic” level, the verbiage sets the tone that team members should chase big opportunities, even if it means they may fail.

Encourage a beginner’s mindset

Invite new employees to share their perspectives. New points of view encourage team members to think about a topic or challenge differently.

Ask for feedback

Teams that review themselves are continuously improving and shifting directions. Ask your team what is working, and discuss what could work better.

While psychological safety takes time to cultivate, leaders can look for the following signs to know that the team is feeling safe:

  • Engagement: People are finding meaning and purpose in their work.
  • Collaboration: Silos fall away, and people work together to find solutions.
  • Curiosity: When difficult topics are raised, they’re productively explored and discussed.
  • Inclusivity: All voices are coming forward and heard, regardless of gender, color, race or title. Varied backgrounds and opinions bring the perspective needed to stumble on great ideas.

The payoff? Innovation, high performance and more personal and team resilience.

B2 co-founder & principal Missy Hurley, APR contributed this article to the November/December 2022 issue of Strategies & Tactics, the award-winning newspaper of Public Relations Society of America.

Copyright © 2022 by Strategies & Tactics. Reprinted with permission from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA.org).


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