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Psychological Safety

Knowledge

Juliette Phillipson - 2024

Team psychological safety doesn’t mean lack of accountability or standards. It means the sense that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish you for speaking up. This means there are four conditions we can be in: apathy, comfort, anxiety and learning. Apathy occurs when both accountability and psychological safety are low. Comfort occurs when accountability is low and psychological safety is high. Anxiety occurs when comfort is high but psychological safety is low. Finally, learning can occur when both accountability and psychological safety are high.


Five important behaviours are possible in psychologically safe team environments:

1. Seeking feedback

2. Sharing information

3. Asking for help

4. Talking about errors

5. Experimenting


Core Emotional Concerns

The first step towards team learning and psychological safety is to satisfy our emotional needs, to turn down our survival instincts and create conditions for rational adult interactions.


The Harvard Negotiation project has outlined five Core Emotional Concerns, which we present as:


Connection

The need to feel connection, similiarity and affiliation. When we feel included, this bridges the gap between groups and increases ability to productively work together.


Autonomy

The need to feel in control and able to contribute and make our own decisions. Particularly strong in teenagers, present in all of us.


Respect

The need to feel noticed, understood and appreciated for our contributions and who we are. Remember, people won’t listen until they feel heard.


Enjoyment of role

Purpose – part of a greater whole

Alignment – feeling that our skills and interests are aligned to our work

Wholeness – not a fake role or pretending to be someone


Status

The need to feel acknowledged for our value. Status mainly means informal status. This does not mean hierarchical position, it means acknowledgement for our experience, our way of thinking or looking at things, our unique value.

The Harvard team has shown these core emotional needs are felt by all people. This means that if we want to work together as rational adults, not just in survival mode, we need to support those around us to feel emotionally safe.


Ground rules

Culture is usually built gradually. Making ground rules for your team may be a major step, particularly if things aren’t comfortable at the moment. Doing a Teams and Leadership team review might help with this. We find that people don’t argue with what is on a team review, and it could give you a clear reason to be checking in and building ground rules with your team. It is always better if there is buy-in for ground rules through collaboration or consultation.


These will be individual for your team, but we suggest three basic rules to start with:


Be present

Listen, particularly to quiet voices. Help soft voices be louder and loud voices be softer.

Ask questions, and be interested in the answer, and in your team members. It's easy to assume (and not be right).

Change from “any questions” or “any ideas” to “what questions” and “what ideas” – the expectation that your team will contribute is important for reframing and for modelling listening.


Be honest

Keep your promises large and small, don’t say you can’t do something if you can’t

Demonstrate keeping boundaries, as a particular promise. Make these boundaries clear – outside of work hours, for example. Taking breaks. Own use of social media/whatsapp.

Setting notifications on/off.


Be sensitive

Thank people for their ideas

Critique ideas or processes, not the people

Consider contributions to things going wrong, or near-misses, not blame – this knowledge is a gift, and should be treated as such.


Summary

Remember the person in front of you is probably feeling those negative emotions (fear).

Helping people to feel emotionally and psychologically safe is vital for creating a culture of team learning and improvement, and for improving performance.

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