Picture this. You’re 19. You’ve just turned pro as a rugby player. It’s your first team meeting and you’re packed into a room with 40 other players, including the England Captain and 7 World cup winners. 

And you get asked a question.

Even if you think you know the answer, can you imagine a more intimidating setting? 

And I’m sure you can relate those situations to your work; someone gets put on the spot in a meeting, they stutter, lose eye-contact and their voice becomes almost impossible to hear.

I can guarantee one thing; at that moment, they do not feel psychologically safe. They fear saying the wrong thing. Making a mistake becomes almost inevitable, terrifying, and all encompassing.

What is it and how to a build it in my team?

We all know the feeling when there is a big elephant in the room, everyone knows it’s there but no one is saying anything. There are whispers in the halls. Words spoken behind closed doors. Knowing looks. A couple of “I told you so’s”.

This is because, for those people, the benefit of staying quiet outweighs any potential benefit of stepping forward and speaking out.

When this is our team it can be incredibly frustrating. Why aren’t people speaking up earlier? Why don’t we hear why they are unhappy? Why won’t they speak to us?

Things start to go wrong and fingers get pointed. Emotions come to the surface. Blame is dished around but ultimately, nothing changes. 

A lack of psychological safety can show itself in much more subtle ways. There could be discrepancies between how in-person and remote workers are treated. Senior leaders not role-modelling processes, annual leave allowances or hybrid working practices. A lack of true celebration of success. It can cause elevated levels of stress, with employees also feeling lonely and burned out.

So what is it?

Dr Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as an environment in which people feel as though they can be their whole selves. Of feeling as though you can take risks and make mistakes without fear of negative consequences. People feel heard and listened to when they speak. They feel included and valued for who they are.

Building psychological safety within your team can reduce the number of people leaving and increase the productivity of everyone. The safety that people feel will also increase the likelihood of them speaking up when they see an issue; this means that improving psychological safety will reduce the number and severity of safety incidents.

Building psychological safety within your team isn’t easy but it can be simple. 

Let’s go back to the rugby player. Specifically, a rugby player at Leicester Tigers.

The coach sees that, in the room of 40, it’s always the same 5 answering. Thinking was never challenged and the younger players never spoke up. The team was just hearing the same opinions and thoughts time and time again. 

So, he made a change. 

  1. The coach created position specific sessions run by a player. He would usually ask a younger player to offer a deep dive into the opposition and what their strengths and weaknesses were. The player would then create a plan to counter them. They’d field questions and get their voice heard; and most importantly, they had the coaches’ support. They were safe to get things wrong. Safe to ask questions. Safe to be challenged and safe to challenge old opinions and think a bit differently. For those players not getting picked regularly, it kept them as part of the game. 
  2. When he knew he was going to ask a question in the team meeting, he’d speak to individual players beforehand to prep them. He’d let them know what he was going to ask, check they would be happy answering and give them a chance to prep their answers in a way that suited them. It got them heard and ensured different voices were speaking up in the room.

Sure, this took effort on his part. But the change was remarkable. Speaking to players who were a part of Leicester Tigers at the time, they were fully bought into the club’s mission, purpose and direction. They knew there were no big timers. They wanted to win for each other.

How can I do it?

  1. Define the purpose of your team and ensure your people know how valued they are
  2. Speak to your people, regularly. And don’t just speak; listen. Respond. Recognise them for the brilliant work they are doing. 
  3. Develop communication best practices that ensure your people are aligned on what they are aiming to achieve, how they are going to do it, who will be doing what and when they are doing it.
  4. Role-model getting things wrong, admitting your mistakes and being vulnerable. As a leader, people look to you for guidance. If you show the behaviours and actions you want from your team, they are more likely to follow.

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