Psychological safety is a game-changer for businesses. I learned about the concept from a study Google did on powerful and effective teams, and one of the key characteristics that they found was psychological safety. Basically, it means that you have a culture that allows team members to feel safe to take risks. A good example of one of those risks is candor. Team members in most companies don’t have the freedom to be candid or open. If they say the wrong thing in front of the wrong person, suddenly there’s a target on their back. I’ve heard plenty of stories from folks in corporate America NOT being able to share constructive feedback up, down, and across the chain. But if you’re not having open and honest feedback so the best idea wins, you’re killing yourself as a team and as an organization. Seems timely with everything going on right now, right?
Fostering an environment of psychological safety works. But it takes time, effort, consistency and above all, it must be authentic – from the very top and across the board. I know it first-hand because I’m committed to it every day with my company.
I’m here to tell every leader that a culture where team members feel unsafe sharing constructive feedback and having real, honest conversations up the chain, down the chain, even across the chain, is a killer. You’re selling yourself and your team short, killing off abilities and ideas, and ultimately putting your company out of business or at a minimum you’ll have a revolving door of talent.
Yet, when you offer your team members the freedom to speak, be heard, and take risks, there is continued growth and that should be every leader’s true objective. Inspire your people to push themselves further than they ever have and you’ll grow the business.
Practical Exercises to Build a Culture of Psychological Safety
So, how can you build a culture of psychological safety? There are a couple of different exercises we’ve found tremendously helpful for reinforcing psychological safety at Una.
First, we brought in John Chisholm, a professional consultant who really knows how to facilitate tough conversations. I can’t stress this enough, that there is real power in working with an outside consultant who has proficient EQ and understanding of culture, managing teams, and facilitating a room effectively to move the conversation along. The process can be emotional, stressful, and difficult, especially in the beginning, so engaging an experienced outside consultant can be invaluable. I can’t emphasize enough the power of a third party. I highly, highly recommend this for any and all size organizations.
We brought the team together with our consultant and started by going around the table and having everybody give us a grade on our values, just like a school report card. Fortunately, we got pretty decent grades. But everybody was still working on candor. So to break through and reassure them that they were really free to say what they were thinking, John facilitated a conversation about “untouchable topics.” It was an exercise that reinforces psychological safety so that anyone can say anything. Now, you’re still held accountable for what you want to say, but it’s ok to take risks. Past employees were mentioned, questions were asked that I thought we’d already answered, but I found that we needed to go through them again. As a leader, it was painful, even though I went into it with the expectation that I was going to hear some harsh truths and I was prepared to be in the hot seat – and man, was I on the hot seat for a good while, answering questions, receiving constructive criticism, not getting defensive, and trying to be as transparent as I possibly could be without crossing boundaries. All in all, I did ok but there is always room for improvement.
It was extraordinary, and I would encourage every business leader to do this with your teams. It confirmed for me that I don’t just believe it; I know that maintaining that environment of psychological safety is essential to earning respect and being an effective leader.
To take this to the next level, there is a similar exercise where everyone takes a turn in the hot seat. This one is not an easy exercise. If it was easy, everybody would do it. But if you’re looking to optimize, this is highly effective. I advise doing the first few with a facilitator and then doing this every six months.
The person on the hot seat puts their hands underneath their legs and keeps their mouth closed. Their only job is to listen. Not to praise, argue, or defend, just listen.
Then each person around the table identifies one attribute the person on the hot seat has, that they think adds value to the organization. Then they share one piece of constructive feedback they believe holds that person and/or the organization back.
This can be powerful. It’s draining. It’s not easy. But it’s real, it’s genuine, and I’ve seen an incredible level of trust, empowerment, and growth in people from this one simple exercise. There is gold in that feedback and it exposes blind spots. You may see tears, anger, or even laughter, but you will be shocked as you see the level of trust and psychological safety go up in the room.
It may not be as much fun as going to happy hour or a bowling outing, which are good and necessary bonding activities too, but sometimes, you’ve got to do a little bit of “heart surgery” to truly grow and build psychological safety.
This practice blows people away. It’s powerful (yes, I know I’m being repetitive with this word, but it is!), especially when you, the leader, participate and go all in. Because when you share openly, especially in front of your leadership team, it’s all out on the table.
Of course, I didn’t say it would be easy, but if you’re looking to optimize, this is a practical way to accomplish it. Again, I recommend bringing in a professional consultant to help facilitate at least for the first several sessions.
Consistency is Key to Maintaining Psychological Safety
I’ve built successful teams just by really focusing on creating a culture where it’s ok to give feedback and it’s ok to disagree. The goal is to share values, not to agree. If the goal in communication is to agree then what happens when you disagree? The goal of communication is to seek to understand. Our outside consultant shared this with me: It’s like gathering puzzle pieces and putting them on the table. When you start doing that more and more with consistency, just like working out and eating right consistently, you’ll see the results. It can make or break a business.
It’s a great practice to encourage psychological safety so more and more of the truth comes out and people feel empowered to take more risks. It’s like a tree. As it rains and it’s windy the roots go wide and go deep to help weather the storm. I look for opportunities to kind of weather these cultural storms.
Psychological Safety Starts at the Top
As you’re building a team or organization, people are going to do 50% of what you do well and 200% of what you don’t do well. Your teams are listening to you, but they’re also really watching what you do. Specifically, when there’s tension, it’s a litmus test. Your people are watching how you handle the moments when something doesn’t go well, how you respond, and how you communicate. It all starts at the top and the standards are set based upon how you exemplify the culture and values.
Psychological safety is not just a subset of culture, it’s a mandate. If you want to have and build effective teams that are growing, focusing on personal development, and exceeding expectations, you have to embrace this concept of psychological safety. I cannot emphasize enough. It’s like the old phrase, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” If you want to grow and be profitable and bring value to your customers, it begins with your culture. And culture is not about ping pong tables and fun stuff in the office, it’s about how we are treating each other.
Your Values Set the Tone
As business leaders what you value sets the tone for your culture. What kind of atmosphere do you want to create? If you want to create really effective teams that are growing, changing, evolving, and feel empowered to execute and get results, then you need to truly understand what it means to develop psychological safety and start making this concept a reality. And these things take time. Relationships take time. There’s a genuineness to this and it has to come down from the top. It has to be repeated and seen. The goal is shared values. Ask yourself and your team, “How can we take things to the next level and grow the business and grow each other? We’re going to share values.” And then create that culture. When you create the kind of environment where people feel safe, watch out because your business is gonna explode, and explode in a good way.