Why Psychological Safety is More Important than Trust


Photo by Pop & Zebra

This article was based on episode 56 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the mini-guide here or the full guide at Patreon.


What’s the one thing that high performing teams across industries, sectors, and departments have in common? Not trust. Not a long history of working together. Not brilliant leadership.


Psychological safety.


I don’t pretend to be an expert in this topic, but given its importance to building a strong, healthy team, I wanted to learn more. I read The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth by Amy C. Edmondson. It is an incredible resource with extensive research to back up the ideas. For anyone looking to learn about or cultivate psychological safety, I suggest you read the whole book. What follows is my synthesis of the key lessons for every manager.


PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY IS NOT THE SAME AS TRUST


The concept of psychological safety was first explored in the 1960s and then got a lot of attention in the 1990s through the present, including some research done at Google where they attributed successful teamwork to psychological safety. It describes people’s perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context. Simply stated, what do I expect will happen if I speak up at work?


Psychological safety is present in every exchange we have whether by email or Slack, in a meeting, or chatting in the hallway. Within those conversations, it’s a matter of whether someone speaks up when they have a different point of view, notice a mistake they or a colleague made, have a question, bad news or feedback to share. Any time there is the potential risk of looking stupid or incompetent, being seen as a failure, coming across as mean or argumentative or otherwise putting yourself out there, is a moment where your actions are determined in large part by psychological safety.


Although psychological safety is easier to develop and maintain when there is trust and respect amongst the team members, these are two different concepts.


Psychological safety is a function of the group whereas trust is between two individuals. Psychological safety describes an immediate experience while trust is about some future moment. In other words, do I believe you will respond respectfully in this moment even if you don’t like what I have to say, versus do I trust you to act in a specific way in the future (e.g. keep something confidential, complete a task, share information).


Both trust and psychological safety are critical for teamwork, but one does not guarantee the other.


TOO OFTEN WE HOLD BACK


We’ve all had moments where we’ve rationalized not speaking up. “They know what they’re doing. I must just be missing something.” Or “it can’t be that important or someone else would have said it.” Or “everyone is so excited about this idea. I don’t want to rain on their parade. I’m sure we can make it work.”


These excuses are signals of a lack of psychological safety. Most of us prefer to be personally safe even if it results in putting the organization or our customers at risk. Over time, playing it safe means we may be underperforming or we may become dissatisfied at work.


Still, we remain silent. Researchers attribute this in part to inherited beliefs from our experiences as students, with our parents or friends, or in other work environments where we’ve learned it’s better to be safe than sorry.


Psychologists call this discounting the future–underweighting the long term impact and overweighting the immediate reaction to my comment or question.


The solution: transform how you respond ‘in the moment.’


HOW YOU RESPOND TO FAILURE DEPENDS ON THE TYPE OF FAILURE


In The Fearless Organization, the author, Amy Edmondson, says there are three failure archetypes:


  1. Preventable failures (which are never good news), are deviations from recommended procedures that produce bad outcomes. For example, If someone fails to wear safety glasses in a factory and then suffers an eye injury.

  2. Complex failures (which are also not good news), occur when a series of internal and.or external factors collide in ways that have never happened before. Think of the severe flooding of the a few subway stations in New York City during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. These types of failures can sometimes, but not always, be avoided.

  3. Intelligent failures (which are not fun, but are actually valuable), are discoveries that come from the result of doing work in which the outcome is unknowable before you start. For example, a new marketing campaign that doesn’t resonate with the audience or a chemical formula that doesn’t have the efficacy needed to pass regulations. Although they are still results you didn’t want, unlike preventable and complex failures, intelligent failures, should be celebrated because they are part of the learning journey in which you’re going to have to get things wrong in order to get things right.


FRAME FAILURE APPROPRIATELY


For highly repetitive work, like in a factory or food service, try emphasizing the importance of quality and preventing those preventable failures. Speaking up when you catch a mistake made by yourself or a colleague is appreciated because you helped avoid a quality reduction.


For innovation work where there is no obvious direct line to achieving the outcome, encourage ideas even when there is high uncertainty as to whether they are good ideas. Focus on generating ideas and hypotheses that you can turn into experiments. Make small, intelligent failures, where learning what doesn’t work moves the team towards discovering what does.


For other complex work, try reframing concerns or questions as “rigorous thinking.” In essence, the idea of asking a clarifying question or wanting data to back up someone’s opinion, or voicing a concern is not being obnoxious, but rather helping the team achieve its goal of thinking rigorously before making decisions or taking action.


RESPOND RESPECTFULLY


In every situation, whether it’s speaking up about a mistake, giving feedback, voicing a concern or sharing an idea, the act of speaking up is only the first step. The true test is how leaders respond.


If a boss responds with negativity, dismissal, or anger, any psychological safety that existed before will quickly disappear. A productive response must be respectful and show appreciation for the act of speaking up, even if you disagree with the content.


Try phrases like these for when you disagree:

  • Thank you for raising that point. I’ll take it into consideration.

  • I understand why you might think that. Let me explain where I’m coming from.

  • I appreciate you pointing that out. I’d like to think about that some more.

  • Good question. I’m not sure we can answer that right now.

These and other similar statements begin by reaffirming the psychological safety and follow with a promise to consider, but not act, on the remarks.


Try phrases like these for when you learn something from an experiment:

  • Glad we tested that. What can we learn from this for our next experiment?

  • Now that we know this, what changes should we make before we try again?

  • What did we expect would happen? Why the difference? What does this mean for us/our work?

  • Great learning. Who else needs to learn this lesson?


BOSSES MAKE THE BEST ROLE MODELS


Lastly, start by being vulnerable yourself. There is a common misconception that bosses must have all the answers. There is an irrational fear that by saying “I don’t know” you’re showing weakness when in fact, the opposite is true. When you make space for others to share their expertise or ideas, you’re demonstrating that you value and need their voices. They have a crucial perspective or insights to contribute.


Be proactive and ask people directly to share their ideas, concerns, and questions. Don’t wait for them to speak up.


Psychological safety is what makes integrating diverse knowledge, perspectives, and skills possible. It’s what enables teams to think big, be nimble, deal with conflict, give and receive feedback, and so much more.


Developing psychological safety isn’t easy or fast, but it may be the best thing you can do as a manager.


To help you cultivate psychological safety among your tea members, check out the free miniguide for today's episode. The full guide for this episode, available to members of the Modern Manager community contains questions for reflection and suggested actions for fostering psychological safety.


This article was based on episode 56 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.

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