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Psychological safety: What it is and how it helps to retain people

In this article, we explore what psychological safety means and how you can foster it in your team.
a group of people working happily together

Psychological safety has gotten a lot of attention recently and seems to be one of the key factors and ingredient to success in high performing teams.

Case study: Project Aristotle at Google

Google spent two years conducting Project Aristotle, an attempt to discover what sets their most effective teams apart from the pack. After interviewing 180 teams, it was crystal clear that high-performing teams are in fact founded on a balance of human-centred traits. Psychological safety was at the top of the list, every time.

The Google researchers found that individuals in teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.

What is psychological safety?

In simple terms, this is when teams have a high level of trust between each other.

Trusting each other to be innovative and try new ideas without judgement, speak up and challenge the status quo without being judged and given the room to fail without suffering negative consequences.

When there is psychological safety, there is a safe environment where:

  • Teams trust each other
  • People can experiment without judgement
  • Opinions can be voiced without being shamed
  • People can fail without being labelled a failure

The opposite of psychological safety is psychological danger, which creates an environment where teams operate with fear, lack of motivation and distrust and therefore are not performing well.

Source: World Economic Forum

Amy Edmondson, an organizational behavioural scientist of Harvard, introduced the concept of “team psychological safety” and defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

Edmondson wanted to measure a team’s level of psychological safety, so, asked team members how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the following statements:

  • If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  • Members of this team feel able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  • People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  • It is safe to take a risk in this team.
  • It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  • No one in this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  • Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

Edmondson suggests three simple things individuals can do to foster team psychological safety in her TEDx talk ‘Building a psychologically safe workplace’:

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility.
  3. Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.
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