Creating Psychological Safety
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6 Ways to Optimize Performance Through Openness & Accountability

By: Ethan Schutz and Don White

A common definition of psychological safety is: a shared belief among members of a team that the atmosphere is safe for interpersonal risk taking—the feeling of being able to be open in a group without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.

Our definition of psychological safety is: an understanding among members of a team that being open and accountable is the expected norm. If any team member feels they or any other member of the team is being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way, they stop what is going on immediately and don’t proceed until the matter is fully worked. Negative feelings are not left to linger.

So how do we create an atmosphere of psychological safety? Most of the relevant literature addresses behaviors such as being transparent with information, including others equally, avoiding blame, explaining intentions, active listening, and so on. While these behaviors are useful, they do not completely resolve the issue.

The initial mindset and feelings of each team member have an enormous and frequently overlooked impact on the behaviors and resulting sense of trust or mistrust across the team. The Human Element® can help by addressing two aspects of this.

First, there is a generally unspoken agreement among team members that one or a certain few team members are creating most or all of the problems, and the team leaders are unwilling or unable to deal with them. Team members may act like victims as if they have little recourse other than to protect themselves. Complaining becomes commonplace. The whole team believes it is basically hostage to a few members.

To address this, the first thing is to recognize that every team member helps to create the atmosphere of safety or no safety. Each individual on the team is responsible and accountable, without blame for their own feelings and behavior. While it is certainly helpful for the leaders to go first in being open and accountable, it is also helpful when the other members contribute. It is not useful or productive to wait for someone else to step up and say or do something to fix the problem. It is everyone’s responsibility to foster full participation and engagement of every person, regardless of their role.

Second, it is useful for team members to understand and acknowledge that most of us pay little or no attention to our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and their impact on the other team members and the resulting level of trust on the team. If I believe that people won’t listen to me unless I aggressively put my opinion out, I may act accordingly. It is unlikely that I will feel safe even in this atmosphere, even if the team is doing all the “right” things. Mindset and underlying emotions carry the day.

The Human Element approach, and specifically the FIRO Theory of interpersonal relations, is designed to address these issues. By looking at and addressing the three fundamental fears that we all share—being ignored, being humiliated, and being rejected—we can help people raise their awareness and shift their emotions and mindset. Working at this deeper internal level can be challenging, but it also pays great dividends. Not only does each team member become more capable of dealing with whatever circumstances they find themselves encountering, they also carry the tools to maintain that capability into their future.

Could your team benefit from learning more about psychological safety and the tools offered by our program? Schedule a free 30-minute consultation to discuss a tailored program.
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