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Psychological Safety: the missing link

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At Mapien we consistently hear the same message from people in organisations when we encourage them to have open honest conversations about how they are feeling or ideas on how to do things differently.  Many say they feel it’s just not “safe” to speak up.  Particularly when a person’s viewpoint goes against the majority or it is different to a senior/valued team member.  Common responses include; “No way can I speak up – I will be punished”, “I don’t want to look like an idiot” or, my all time favourite, “speaking up about this will be a career limiting move!”  You may have used these phrases yourself or heard others say them.

So why do people find it so hard to speak up?

Because we are social creatures

Human beings are naturally social creatures. We are constantly attuned to the social cues feeding back to us telling us whether we are similar enough to fit-in and belong with those around us.

Why? for all of our history, belonging = survival.

Unfortunately, these incredibly attuned senses for detecting who we are similar to and if we fit in have a flip-side. These senses also make us very aware of behaviour that may lead us to being left out of the group.

If belonging = survival, then not-belonging becomes a terrifying prospect.

The challenges of diversity in organisations

Diversity in organisations has been widely researched for many years and benefits far outweigh the challenges.  To stop at such a statement ignores the very human fact that there will be challenges along the way.  In diverse organisations, silos can easily emerge as people seek to fit in and stick with those who are similar to themselves.

The benefit that diversity can bring to organisations comes from the different ideas and ways of interpreting information that people of different backgrounds bring to the table.  The healthy conflict that arises from different approaches and ideas can lead to the most innovative solutions. However, if diverse individuals are in the minority of opinion, the human drive to fit-in with the group for survival will stop people from speaking up.  These people are feeling psychologically unsafe.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is feeling confident that your team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.  It is not about being cosy, warm, and nice.  It is really about being candid, open, humble, and curious.  Psychological safety is essential for all environments to foster a diverse range of input.  It is not exclusive from performance…it is essential for it.

Although psychological safety shares some overlap with trust, psychological safety is different as it focuses on how group members perceive a group norm, whilst trust focuses on how one person views another.

What are the benefits and impacts of psychological safety?

High levels of psychological safety have been directly linked with higher individual, team, and organisational performance (Newman, Donohue, Eva, 2017).  At the individual and team level, psychological safety predicts a wide range of positive behaviours including:

  • Greater reporting of errors.
  • More interpersonal communication.
  • Greater knowledge sharing within the team.
  • Higher tendency to “speak up” to improve what is currently done.
  • Reduction in silence behaviours.
  • More constructive disagreement and candid feedback.
  • Greater retention of learnings from failure.

So… how does psychological safety fit into managing diversity?

Building psychological safety within teams and organisations will help to ensure that the benefits of a diverse workforce (different approaches, ideas and constructive conflict) can be fully utilised.  If people see, hear, and feel that the group values different approaches, contributions will increase.  Those who work to build psychological safety in their teams will reap the benefits of their diversity.

How can I build psychological safety in my team?

Psychological safety will rise and fall with the presence or absence of specific behaviours at the leadership level.  Behaviours such as genuinely inviting input from team members, investing effort to empathise with a team member and acknowledging feedback from others, even when disagreeing, all contribute to building psychological safety.

Ultimately, at the individual and team level, psychological safety is solidified through team members learning and emulating these behaviours from their leader.

How can we help?

To help our clients build psychological safety within their teams, our team at Mapien runs targeted team development programs (including at the ELT level) that focus on learning the behaviours that build psychological safety.

Our outcome is to educate teams on the value of psychological safety, and work collaboratively to build team behaviour which encourages all contribution, and make all team members feel comfortable being who they are at work.

Want to build your team’s psychological safety, collaboration skills and performance?
Contact us here and one of our Mapien Consultants will be in touch.

Written by
Alex Perey
Alex is passionate about integrating scientific research, data analytics and industry best practice to deliver value at an individual, team and organisational level.