A psychologically safe work environment is one where individuals and teams feel able to speak up, challenge the status quo and take calculated risks. Amy Edmondson, the Harvard professor who coined the term, defines it as “a shared belief that an environment is safe for interpersonal risk.”
As Professor Edmondson also points out, this is not about making it a comfortable or easy working environment, it’s about creating a climate where colleagues feel able to critically question the ideas and actions of their peers and leaders – enabling diversity of thought and innovation.
How does psychological safety improve performance?
In a psychologically safe environment, colleagues have permission to take risks, the confidence to critically question, and the freedom to innovate without fear of failure. This encourages inspiration and action.
The case for diverse teams (in all its forms) has been proven time and again. Yet, to harness the diverse perspectives and strengths of a team, everyone must feel respected and empowered. There is no point in having a visibly or cognitively diverse team if the same voices are aired again and again when it comes to key decision making. To establish and reap the benefits of a truly inclusive and diverse team, psychologically safety is essential.
Why leaders should address this fast
While sceptics may interpret this school of thought as encouraging failure without accountability, Mathew Syed’s Black Box Thinking, released in 2015, reminds us that by allowing your teams to acknowledge mistakes and learn from them without judgment, everyone can benefit from those lessons learned and avoid repeating the same mistake.
Psychologically safe environments don’t actively seek failure – instead, they allow teams, organisations, and even entire industries to learn faster. Syed makes the comparison between blame culture in the NHS vs. the critical analysis of errors within the aviation industry. In aviation, there is a commitment to learning from mistakes that enables the industry to collectively take steps to improve its practice. However, the presence of a blame culture and lack of psychological safety within the UK healthcare sector, for example, means that mistakes can take longer to unearth and even longer to learn from – increasing the inevitability that these mistakes are repeated.
In a business world where change is continuous and pace is essential, leaders need to empower their teams to work more autonomously. This is not a ‘nice to have’. If teams don’t feel empowered to make decisions and learn from them quickly, organisations risk being left behind the competition, and potentially, their business becoming irrelevant.
How a storytelling culture creates psychologically safe environments:
Stories help us to make meaning of the world and people around us – it’s an instinctive and natural way to connect with other humans.
In hybrid and remote working environments, creating an innate sense of psychological safety is even harder to achieve as you can’t rely on ad-hoc water cooler moments to connect with colleagues. Developing a storytelling culture provides a solution to this by equipping leaders with a simple and effective way to develop emotional connections with their teams (even through a screen) which in turn cultivates a psychologically safe environment.
We work with clients to implement organisation-wide storytelling cultures to empower teams so that colleagues across the business are equipped with the means and fora to share stories during team calls, town halls, 1:1s, key events and online social work platforms. This commitment to being open and forthcoming with stories, in turn, reduces a climate of fear and fosters a sense of authenticity and innovation.
With one large organisation we recently supported, we helped their leadership team to challenge the dominant narrative that governed the relationship between managers and employees. This ‘background’ narrative had traditionally dictated the working environment where the manager provides instructions, and the employees’ role was simply to deliver as they were told. To overcome this, the new organisational story we created with them articulated both the company’s vision and the role they wanted employees to play in achieving it. We also put in place interventions and practices to embed a storytelling culture throughout the organisation. This shift in the culture of the company helped employees to feel more empowered to contribute and be active players in the organisation’s direction rather than passive participants.
“When team leaders — and others — practice genuine inquiry that draws out others’ ideas, listening thoughtfully to what they hear in response, psychological safety in the team grows. The need for inquiry is heightened in diverse teams because of the number and variety of perspectives represented.” Harvard Business Review
By sharing stories of failure and success, leaders send out a strong message to their teams that value is placed on the willingness to act and drive teams forward over and above a pursuit of perfection or to maintain the status quo. At a deeper level, they place value on the need for new ideas and diverse perspectives – creating a truly inclusive environment that allows individuals to thrive and bring their unique solutions to the table without judgement.