Research & Design Strategy

Building the perfect team with psychological safety

February 20, 2018

Psychological safety can be the difference between innovative and just OK. Here are three easy ways to build psychological safety at your organization.

You should read Charles Duhigg's "Smarter Faster Better." It's about how teams work together and why some teams work better than others. I was just starting the final semester of my MBA program at the time I read the excerpt, and it struck a chord. Duhigg begins the article by describing an MBA student who felt stressed out by one of her MBA study groups but at ease and in-sync with another. He explores the difference between those two teams and, through examples from Google and others, goes on to conclude that the difference came down to one thing—psychological safety. 

What is psychological safety? Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines it as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking” and a “sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”

Psychological safety wasn't covered in MBA school, but the more I learned about it the more I thought it might offer a true competitive advantage for organizations who successfully deploy it. If a team doesn't feel psychologically safe, how will they be able to go successfully through the vulnerable and messy process of producing sound decisions? Getting to those decision requires a team to feel psychologically safe, just as Edmondson describes.

Here's how you can put psychological safety into practice with your team, based on a few ideas we've been using at Delve.

1. Set the groundwork.

We’ve been experimenting with a more robust internal project launch process. While in the past we used to take time to get a new team up to speed only on the project and the client, now we spend at least as much time introducing ourselves and talking about our work styles. This can be as basic as what your working hours are (“I’m home for dinner with my family every night, but then can burn the midnight oil.”) to skills or opportunities someone is working on (“I know that I’m not good at speaking up at client meetings, so please help me.”). While it felt a little formal and forced at first, now I crave these internal launches. I have noticed that the projects or teams that didn’t have them are the ones that struggle the most. This small effort sets a stronger foundation for understanding and trusting one another and creates open lines of communication for things that could be difficult to talk about later.

2. Keep checking in.

While a good launch meeting can mean a lot for the long term, it’s just a point in time. Projects and people evolve. Everyone gets stressed at points, but we don’t always ask for help or offer it to team members. So, it’s a good idea to check in as a team or one-on-one regularly. It doesn’t hurt to schedule those check-ins in advance (say, once a month) so they don’t seem overly scary or sprung out of nowhere, like when we all suddenly realize there really is a problem. If it’s on the calendar with the purpose being a discussion about what’s working and not working, then people can be prepared to speak up and know that others are expected to do so as well.

3. Debrief and re-set.

I’m on a mini-crusade as of late to create better feedback cultures. It grew out of a recognition that I avoid conflict and tough conversations and need help. So, I’ve been pushing myself to speak up more and have been learning about how to deliver feedback. As part of that searching, I came across the book Radical Candor and I can’t say enough good things about it. I’ve recommended it so many times I’ve lost count.

One of the ways we can build psychological safety is through self-awareness – and sometimes we need others to help us find our blind spots. Regular, constructive, and (sometimes) tough feedback is essential. If you’re not getting it, ask for it. It’s only fair to you and your team or organization. One-on-one feedback is one way, as are formal project retrospectives or post-mortems where teams take stock of how a project went and then share lessons learned to keep adding to the psychological safety goodness.

These are just three ways that you and your teams can start to build psychological safety. Every organization, team, and person is different, though. So, experiment with what works for you and keep trying and failing. You’ll never get it perfect (that’s not the point), but you can improve.

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