Psychological Safety – It’s Not All Kumbaya

Psychological Safety – It’s Not All Kumbaya

BlueEQ™ Staff

The number one comment I get when I teach business leaders about psychological safety is, “That sounds really nice, but I have challenging objectives my team needs to meet”.  The discussion that follows is one of my favorites because it helps clarify that a psychologically safe zone is not just a feel-good zone where little to nothing ever gets done.   On the contrary, according to a 2-year study of high performing teams at Google, the number one driver of a successful team is equated to a psychologically safe environment.

Amy Edmundson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School and pioneer in research on psychological safety described it this way, “When I am talking about Psychological Safety I’m essentially talking about letting up on the brakes……to free people up to really engage and not be afraid of each other.”   Teams still need direction, motivation and accountability, but if the environment is not safe, regardless of other drivers or implications, the brakes are on and performance is sub-optimal.  The theory of psychological safety suggests that each team member’s performance will be marginalized because of the perceived high cost of taking risks, being creative, or questioning the status quo.

So how does a leader create this atmosphere of safety as well as accountability?   As a leader, you are responsible in part for your organization’s success; thus, you are accountable for achieving the needed results from your team.   You are also, undeniably influencing the ongoing atmosphere and culture that drives your team’s interactions.   Personal and professional modeling is the most powerful tool you have to create and perpetuate high emotional intelligence and psychological safety among your team.  As you personally display increased emotional intelligence traits necessary for an atmosphere of growth, learning, and exploration, you begin to cultivate an environment resulting in full engagement by your team members.   An environment of full engagement results in timely, relevant, and constructive feedback.   Emotional road-blocks are identified quicker because everyone feels free to speak up and question what’s being asked of them and their performance.  Problems result in better solutions because everyone freely contributes ideas, and everyone is vested in the results.  In this kind of work environment productivity increases.

Regardless of industry type, we have seen better results in teams with high psychological safety.  In manufacturing plants, ‘lost-time’ accidents are reduced, formal grievances lowered and productivity boosted.  In the service industry customer satisfaction and profit growth both increased.   The consumer products industry has seen sales and market share growth.   Across the board industries see higher employee retention rates with productivity and cost savings associated with lower turnover.

A classic image of Kumbaya today is one of people sitting around singing and swaying.   In a corporate view that would mean staying in your comfort zone, lacking the nerve to question, and in valuing productivity over conflict.  The original song, however, was one that represented the strength and power people gained as they came together in harmony to accomplish something difficult.   Maybe Psychological safety is about Kumbaya after all.