Whose Psychological Safety?

by John Sautelle

The most effective teams are psychologically safe. Could supporting individuals overcome their own fearful stories take team performance to the next level? Read on …

When researchers in Google’s People Operations set out to establish what made Google teams effective, the results came as a surprise. Of five key dynamics identified, the most important was psychological safety. 

Organizational behavioural scientist Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” She points out, no-one wants to look ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative, and many of us manage those “interpersonal risks” by holding back and not speaking out.

The Google researchers found that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are:

  • less likely to leave Google

  • more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates

  • bring in more revenue

  • are rated as effective twice as often by executives

It is not surprising Google has been pro-actively taking steps to provide tools to create higher levels of psychological safety within the teams. 

Separately, in a four-year study of world class teams from diverse organisations, including internet retailer Zappos, comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six, IDEO, and the San Antonio Spurs, Dan Coyle found that psychological safety, alongside vulnerability and clear shared purpose, came through as the most important factors for success. You can read more about that in his book “The Culture Code: The Secret of Highly Successful Groups”.

In parallel with team interventions, I have been exploring how to better support individual team members create more psychological safety for themselves, regardless of the team dynamics. One key is understanding where the “interpersonal risk” really comes from. Essentially, the risk arises from our own overprotective stories, often operating outside our conscious awareness. 

We make sense of ourselves, other people and the world we live in through our stories. We inherit and adopt many of our most impactful stories; from our families, people who care for us, teach and discipline us; stories from the culture and environment we grow up in, from fairy tales, myths, movies, books and social media. These stories create survival responses in our brain and body, moving us towards things that sustain life, or away from or against perceived threats, including threats to our sense of identity.

As humans we have a strong survival need to be perceived positively by important people in our lives to ensure we remain connected to them. To achieve this, early in life, we internalise powerful stories that shape our sense of self. ‘You are such a good little boy, so polite and so well behaved; You are a selfish little girl; You are hopeless, just like your father; You are a brave little man; You are pathetic; You are so smart; You are so dumb.’ 

Stories like these, central to our sense of self, often drive related fear-based stories about our social identity, ie how others will perceive us. Stories like: If I ask for clarification, people will think I am stupid. If I admit I have made a mistake, my colleagues will always think I am incompetent, and no-one will ever trust me. If I speak out against this, I will be seen as a trouble maker, not a team player, and I will inevitably be sidelined. If I disclose how I am really feeling, I will forever be seen as weak, overly-emotional and not up to the job. 

While these stories were created to protect us against the risk of disconnection they over-exaggerate and generalise the risks with words like always, inevitably, nobody and everybody. At worst they are misguided and over-protective, causing us to jump at shadows, creating unnecessary fears and anxieties, making it very difficult for psychological safety to be created in interactions at work.

The good news is we can change these stories. Here are some steps, using the example of not speaking out when it would be helpful to do so:

  • Start noticing where and when you hold back from saying what you really think.

  • In that moment pay attention to any fear-based sensations arising in your body. Ask yourself “What stories are creating these fears?”

  • Write the stories down – and look for the words that over-exaggerate the risk; for example: “If I speak out against this, everyone will think I am a troublemaker.”

  • Rewrite the story, for example: “If I speak out against this and some people are threatened by my view I can cope with that.”

  • Activate the new story by testing it when the stakes are not too high.

  • Keep testing the new story to build confidence in it.

By changing our over-protective stories, we are freed to be creative and contribute in our teams without fear. 

We help create High Performance Teams through increasing individual and group psychological safety. If you are interested, contact us for more information.