Behavioural science,  Blog post,  Leadership,  Team performance

Unlocking team performance, innovation and inclusion with psychological safety.

Psychological safety might sound like a mouthful, but it’s a critical aspect of a healthy organisational culture that fosters innovation, inclusion, and performance. If you haven’t heard about it, you’re not alone. If you are anything like me, once you understand it, you’ll be obsessed!

In so many of the discussions we have with our clients, they are wondering how to make a tangible difference in how their team operates to genuinely encourage more innovation whilst also ensuring that the team performs at its best. The research is clear – you need to focus on building strong psychological safety. And guess what – it’s gonna feel a bit hard. But you’ll see that that’s kinda the point.

What is psychological safety?

Let’s start by clearing up a common misconception: psychological safety isn’t about mental health and well-being. It’s related, as it will support a positive environment that, in turn, supports resilience, engagement and wellbeing. However, psychological safety is specifically about creating an environment where people feel safe to speak their minds, share ideas, ask questions, and even admit mistakes without fearing judgment or retribution.

It’s not about being ‘nice’ and comfortable. It’s about embracing the discomfort that comes from challenging each other and debating ideas because the team enjoys the learning that comes with it.  This matrix shows how important accountability is for driving psychological safety – without it, you risk apathy or anxiety.

Matrix that shows that high accountability and high psychological safety results in a great learning culture.

Why does psychological safety matter?

Research has shown that psychological safety is like a secret sauce for high-performing teams. It boosts engagement, fuels innovation, and fosters inclusion. It’s your best bet for smoothly navigating change, creating a culture of continuous learning, and ensuring your team thrives in a fast-paced, unpredictable and complex world. Multiple studies have validated these findings.

Consider Google’s “Project Aristotle.” They analysed 180 teams and found that the smartest and hardest-working individuals didn’t guarantee top results. Instead, teams with psychological safety excelled. It’s just that important.

How do you know if you have it?

While there are great survey measures by experts like Amy Edmondson, let’s keep it simple. Look for clues in your day-to-day interactions and the “breadcrumbs” in your census results.

Red Flag #1 – Silence

If your team rarely raises issues or concerns with you, it’s not necessarily because everything is hunky-dory. It could be a sign that they don’t feel comfortable doing so. People often hold back when they lack psychological safety, especially when it comes to questioning the leader.

Red Flag #2 – Meeting behaviours

Does everyone look for your opinion before they voice their own? Are there a couple of dominating personalities that you hear from all the time whilst rarely hearing from others? Do you get a sense that people are holding back their ideas or concerns? Does anyone ever challenge your opinion? If you are in a virtual environment, do you notice that it seems really hard to get people to even unmute themselves and contribute? These all may be a sign of a lack of psychological safety.

Red Flag #3 – Your Census results

While the APS Census doesn’t include specific psychological safety measures, there are clues in there if you look. Look at the questions below and consider if your results are below APS average:

  • Immediate supervisor questions: do they invite a range of views, encouraging review and improvements, and can deliver difficult advice whilst maintaining relationships?
  • SES Manager questions: do they encourage innovation and creativity?
  • Enabling innovation questions: does the agency recognise and support the notion that failure is part of innovation?
  • Unacceptable behaviour questions: are people reporting issues of bullying, harassment or corruption?

If you answered “yes” to most of these, don’t fret; you’re not alone. Psychological safety isn’t the default, and it takes time to cultivate. As humans, we tend to avoid conflict or pushing against the status quo, but that also means we need to be very intentional and thoughtful about creating a culture where it not only feels safe to challenge each other but it’s expected because the team benefits from the ongoing learning that will result.

Strategies for psychological safety

A great place to start as a leader is to adopt some simple strategies that will help signal your own expectations and role model the behaviours you want to see in your people:

  1. Language matters: Use language that shows genuine interest in your team’s thoughts and concerns. Phrases like “I don’t know, what do you think?” or “I need your help” or “Can you give me another perspective on this” create space for others to share and signal that it’s okay not to have all the answers.
  1. Praise effort: Recognise and reward those who put in effort, not just those who achieve outcomes. Acknowledge the unsung heroes who help others, bring fresh ideas, and take calculated risks. Remember – organisational culture is about the behaviours we reward or reject, so look for those opportunities to recognise those great behaviours.
  1. Set (and hold) high standards: As a leader, you must “set the stage.” Clearly communicate expectations, why they matter, and for whom. If someone falls short, address it respectfully, with curiosity, and candour, showing that you won’t ignore poor performance or behaviour, but that you are in it together to find ways to improve.

Remember, building psychological safety is an ongoing journey. It can be uncomfortable at times, especially as your team grows more confident in challenging you. But that discomfort is often a sign that you’re on the right track, building a foundation of respect and trust that allows innovation and performance to flourish.

Psychological safety is not just a buzzword; it’s the key to unlocking your team’s full potential. Look around at the behaviours you can see, and the data in your census results to identify where you can make a difference. With the right communication strategies, you can create an environment where everyone feels safe, valued, and empowered to contribute their best. So, let’s start those conversations and watch your team thrive.

If you want to know more, I strongly recommend Amy Edmondson’s classic book, “The Fearless Organisation”. I also recommend Kim Scott’s “Radical Candor”. If you are more of a podcaster (like me!) then I recommend listening to this episode of “Your brain at work“.

And once you’ve done that, call me for a chat! Not only do I love deep diving into this topic, but can help you identify some other ways to really embed psychological safety into your team’s ways of working so that you and your team can see the benefits and go beyond what you thought was possible!

Behaviour and Culture Change Consultant. Chief Glitter Officer.

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