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Psychological safety

See psychological safety in action with the Google ‘aristotle’ model.

The creative process is very experimental, so when we’re part of a collaboration, we need to be able to share ideas before they are fully formed. Although they might seem unfeasible to start with, they could be the seed that leads to a real breakthrough once they’ve been discussed and explored further.

Sometimes an idea will not work out as expected, and you’ll need to re-think it. At other times you’ll create something that needs to be fixed completely. In the process of creative experimentation and exploration, there will be mistakes and failures so it’s important that your team see this as a learning process, and there is no fear of being blamed for doing something wrong.

When you have an environment where you and your teammates feel comfortable to take risks and make mistakes with each other without worrying that there will be a negative consequence, you have created something that is vital for the success of a team, called psychological safety.

The concept was originally coined in 1999 by the Harvard professor, Amy Edmonson. But more recently companies all over the world have been realising its importance. One such company is Google who discovered the impact of psychological safety in one of their internal experiments Project Aristotle. Researchers had wanted to identify what made up Google’s highest performing teams. They found that those teams that were most successful were not those with the most individually talented team members, but those where psychological safety featured highly. In other words, how the team members communicated, trusted each other and respected each other was more important than who was on the team.

Psychological safety is vital for the creative process for many reasons:

  • Innovation requires experimentation. You can’t develop anything new without the space to know that those ideas might fail.
  • To support diversity. Environments that favour people from certain backgrounds and with certain personality types do not provide an opportunity for people that are different to speak up. Psychologically safe environments do.
  • Avoid groupthink. When people are afraid to speak up because they are concerned by creating conflict, then bad ideas can go uncriticised.
  • For learning. With teams that have psychological safety, mistakes are uncovered earlier, so they can move faster and make more progress

Tips for team leaders

  • Start building psychological safety as early as possible in your team by talking about its importance for your collaboration.
  • Ask what people need to feel psychologically safe – for example, it could be a forum to share concerns, a suggestion box, regular feedback sessions – and build this into your ways of working. You could even have “psychological safety” as one of your team values.

The whole team can help to ensure that throughout your project, psychological safety is kept in place by:

  • Making time for social connection. Those teams who build good relationships also build higher levels of psychological safety, not least because it’s easier to talk to each other, but you build more empathy for each other. Remember not to just focus on work, but take time for more personal conversations. For example, check-ins at the start of your meeting can work to build that trust.
  • Hold regular retrospectives and reviews of your working process. You should always be improving the way that you work as a team. Not everything will be perfect to start with, and you are all working this out together as you learn more about each other and your project
  • Create times to share “stupid ideas”. In your brainstorming and ideation sessions, start off by encouraging people to share all ideas, no matter how bad they seem at first. Make it a fun way to get creative juices flowing before you move into shaping and critiquing them.
  • Share mistakes often and early. Make it a habit to discuss what’s not working as soon as possible. Always be curious and keep asking “what have we learned from this that can make us, our team and our project better?”
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How to Improve Your Creative Collaboration

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