Psychological Safety: Pro Tips for Leaders

You’ve no doubt heard about the concept of psychological safety–the words and actions that leaders use to foster the belief among their teams that it’s ok to speak up, voice differing opinions and be truthful. Have you actively considered creating a speak-up culture? Putting intention behind this concept will create a much stronger chance that it will exist on your team. Here’s what three experts in psychological safety say about this topic and how you as a leader can capitalize on their decades of research.

Elevate the role of questions

“Questions are taken for granted rather than given a starring role in the human drama. Yet all my teaching and consulting experience has taught me that what builds a relationship, what solves problems, what moves things forward is asking the right questions.”

― Edgar H. Schein, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling 

The late Edgar Schein, a prominent organizational psychologist, was professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He wrote extensively about the importance of psychological safety in organizational culture. In his book Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, he argues that leaders who ask questions and listen to their team members create a culture of psychological safety.

PRO TIP: Questions that open up dialog and create safety

  • I sense that you want to say more. Please do.
  • No judgment here. What’s on your mind?
  • What points of view haven’t we considered yet?
  • We haven’t heard from everyone yet; who else wants to contribute?

Know the “Big 3” conditions of psychological safety

“Engagement thrives in the context of some relationships and wilts in others…relationships are metaphorically, the nervous system of the organization.”

― William Kahn, Employee Engagement in Theory and Practice

Kahn is often called the “founder of employee engagement” because of his pioneering work in the field. Khan’s research identified three psychological conditions needed for employees to fully engage: feeling safe, meaningfulness and having access to the right energy and resources.

The “feeling safe” element in this context means: do your employees feel safe being who they are on your team? Do they feel it’s ok to contribute without being made to feel foolish?

PRO TIP: Points to Ponder

  • Do certain team members get ridiculed (even “in fun”) at team meetings?
  • Have you said something that shut someone down and you noticed they now rarely participate in discussions?
  • Do you (perhaps silently) find yourself characterizing people as “too sensitive” or coaching people that they need to get a “thicker skin”?

Find your dissenters

“Often in meetings, I will ask people when we’re discussing an idea, ‘What did the dissenter say?’ The first time you do that, somebody might say, ‘Well, everybody’s on board.’ Then I’ll say, ‘Well, you guys aren’t listening very well, because there’s always another point of view somewhere and you need to go back and find out what the dissenting point of view is.’”

― Amy C. Edmondson, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth 

Edmondson is one of the more well-known experts on this topic. She is a proponent of educating leaders on how to artfully get their team members to speak up, engage by offering differing perspectives and push themselves to tell difficult truths. 

Here’s an excellent 2×2 grid Edmonson published on her website that outlines the impact a lack of psychological safety has on a team’s performance.

Edmonson also pushes back on the incorrect interpretation of psychological safety in the workplace, noting that this concept doesn’t mean a “free for all” with people saying whatever the heck they feel. Tact and controlling emotional impulses are still very much an important conversational tool, especially if you’re going to encourage dissent. This isn’t about “winning” a debate or verbally roasting each other; it’s about getting all ideas out into the open and professionally discussing them.

PRO TIP: How to Get Folks to Dissent

  • Work on your poker face. If you’re prone to visibly reacting to new ideas, learn to take a deep breath and not react. Can’t do it? Then be honest with your team: “This is my ‘I’m hearing this for the first time’ face. Ignore it. It doesn’t mean I’m not open to your idea.”
  • I’m hearing a lot of agreement about this idea. Before we consider it a “go,” who wants to run it through the reality check machine?
  • I know this topic has passionate supporters. Let’s get all viewpoints out on the table before we debate the merits of the idea.

It is essential for leaders to set an example and promote psychological safety in the workplace. Let the wisdom from these three experts empower you with the knowledge to foster a culture of trust and respect that allows employees to feel safe in their work environment. When you create a psychologically safe workplace, you will ensure that employees are able to thrive in their roles and contribute positively towards organizational success. 

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