The Perils Of Psychological Safety
I’ve posted a couple of articles about trust and courage in teams in my blog, Teaming With Ideas. I connect my thinking about those two subjects to what’s become a justifiably hot topic in the realm of collaboration: psychological safety.
Psychological Safety hit the scene thanks to research done at Google a couple of years ago. Their findings are smart and inarguably accurate. In my work through Corporate Collabortion Resourses, how people end up applying the idea of psychological safety is causing some problems. In an effort to create psychological safety, team members are spending a lot of time being nice to each other. They’re missing the point and it can be perilous to group dynamics and business results.
Let’s start with this question: “Who is accountable for feelings of psychological safety in a team?” It’s easy to say, “Everyone.” But as we know, when everyone is responsible for something, no one is responsible. A fine HBR article on psychological safety cites five things a manager can do to “create” psychological safety. Team members are also accountable to each other for creating and sustaining psychological safety. There’s a problem, though, with looking across the table and seeing others as accountable for the psycho-emotional state of a group: thoughts and emotions are internal personal experiences. As stated in my post, “The Courage to Trust”, “When I make my feelings of mistrust [i.e., a lack of psychological safety] someone else’s problem, I am playing the victim.” I am relinquishing something of which I have sole control to someone else. There’s no doubt that others influence our feelings. In the end, though, only I can control and shape my feelings of psychological safety. While the accountability for psychological safety is shared, it has to start and end within each individual.
To create psychological safety in a group, each team member must act as if it’s their responsibility to make it so. This is where things get tricky. The desire to take care of others’ feelings creeps in and this leads to rampant niceness and over-politeness. The thinking is that if our less-pleasant side shows, if we show our irritability or frustration or anger, it will cause others to think we aren’t cultivating a safe environment. In other words, in the quest for psychological safety, people start acting like phonies. If your idea of psychological safety is leading to an environment where you and your colleagues can’t be authentic, that’s bad news. What is the way out of this trap? Failure, learning and accountability.
It turns out that high performing groups fail more than less-high-performing groups. They don’t just fail, though. They consistently admit errors, learn from their failures and apply that learning which leads to excellence. In these groups, leaders – and team members – hold themselves and each other accountable for this on-going learning: for trying and failing; for capturing lessons learned and extracting value from them.
Learning in a group only happens where there’s free flowing exploration about what’s working and what isn’t paired with a willingness to be vulnerable in front of your teammates. Psychological safety isn’t about being nice. It’s about each team member placing a higher value on learning with their teammates than on being right or even liked. Psychological safety is everybody’s responsibility, sure. But it only takes root when each of us musters the courage to fail with our teammates and to relish the learning that comes from it.