How to Create a Psychologically Safe Culture: The ways trust is broken and how to restore it
For the last 18 months, we’ve been assessing psychological safety for our clients. COVID-19 has had a massive impact on organizational culture. What we’ve been learning through each assessment is this, the impact of COVID-19 requires that leaders and teams:
Have more open, transparent, and honest communication.
Talk more directly about the real issues that impact culture and performance.
Hold people accountable for their impact on others and their individual performance.
COVID-19 is a major disrupter requiring leaders to become more emotionally intelligent.
In a sense, we can consider COVID-19 as a major disruptor to our personal and professional lives. Leaders are now facing more complex issues balancing health safety requirements for employees and clients, and creating psychological safety for staff. Creating a physically safe and healthy working environment means leaders have to address complex issues relating to the behavior of people outside the office, mask fatigue, zoom fatigue, and COVID-19 fatigue.
What is psychological safety?
According to Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School and author, most recently, the Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth(Wiley, 2018)explains, psychological safety means an absence of interpersonal fear. When psychological safety is present, people are able to speak up with work-relevant content. For many people during the pandemic, the explicitness of the physical lack of safety has been experienced as a shared fear, which has allowed them to be more open and intimate and more able to voice their thoughts and concerns with colleagues. (Psychological safety, emotional intelligence, and leadership in a time of flux. McKinsey Quarterly, July 2020)
Why create psychological safety? Isn’t that just fluff?
In 2012, Google embarked on an initiative with the codename the Project Aristotle. The purpose of the study was to learn why some individuals and teams soared while others struggled. What they learned is this, when it came to team success and performance, “it was much less about who was on the team and more about how the team worked together.” (Guide: Understand Team Effectiveness. re: Work. Google). To create high performance, teams needed in order of importance:
Psychological Safety: the ability to take interpersonal risk.
Dependability: team members can rely on each other.
Structure and Clarity: set clear expectations and goals.
Meaning: employees contribute and find sense of purpose in the job they perform.
Impact: staff knows their role has a meaningful impact for the organization.
Psychological safety begins when we equalize and humanize our fears and concerns
In our own studies, and while conducting team sessions, we’ve noticed that if we create the conditions for people to be directly honest with each other, psychological safety increases. Teams create a stronger sense of community and a deeper sense of belonging. When psychological safety and a sense of belonging increase employee engagement, trust is elevated. Increased trust, belonging, and engagement allow teams to talk honestly about the issues and problems they face. With that level of honest communication and engagement, people and teams find more creative solutions that improve results.
We don’t mean to, but we all have behaviors that break trust driving down psychological safety
Recently, while working with a team of senior leaders, we normalized the ways each of us break trust and create psychologically unsafe working conditions. We have a saying, if you can name it you can tame it. Some of the primary ways we break trust are:
Shooting the messenger.
Lack of consistency leading to lack of integrity.
Breaches of confidentiality.
Omission of information.
During this same team session, we had everyone admit and acknowledge the primary way they break trust with others. It was not an exercise to assess blame, but rather to acknowledge that leaders are human and make mistakes that sometimes break trust and drive down psychological safety. As I like to say, most leaders want to do a good job. Most leaders want to elevate others. Most leaders aren’t trying to be a highly effective jerk. However, all leaders have some behaviors that detract from their effectiveness. Generally speaking, bad leadership behavior comes out when people feel stressed. That’s why it is important to normalize non-productive behavior and help leaders and teams improve resilience.
What we’ve noticed is that when we normalize human behavior, we open up lines of communication, and when people can honestly say to each other what they truly think and feel, it is much easier to create a high-performance culture. The ability to simply talk about personal and company stressors allows teams to develop compassion for each other increasing a sense of belonging.
After leading teams through our The Ways We Break Trust™ exercise, we have them dialogue and analyze the root cause of their performance issues related to leadership behavior. Other than finding potential bad processes and procedures, the teams identify the psychological safety and communication issues that adversely impact performance. With the basis of psychological safety, trust and belonging, they solve the issues and improve the bottom-line.
If you want help increasing psychological safety in your organization, contact email@example.com.