Have you ever felt yourself holding back at work? Afraid of how your opinions or ideas will be perceived, playing it safe to avoid the possibility of making a mistake, not comfortable being yourself? In that situation, were you able to contribute your best work to the team? Chances are likely that the answer is: no.
In a two year study on team performance at Google, researchers found that the most important ingredient which set high performing teams apart was team psychological safety.
This is what Harvard organisational behavioural scientist Amy Edmonson (1999) defines as a ‘a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking [...] It describes a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’
If there are high levels of psychological safety in a team, it feels safe to share ideas, to be your authentic self, to take risks and potentially make mistakes, and to ask for help - all without the fear that it will lead to you being ridiculed or rejected from the group. These things allow teams to adapt, innovate, value diverse perspectives, give each other honest feedback, approach conflict in a healthy way and support each other.
Psychological safety is not just a nice-to-have in a team, it’s essential.
Have you ever said a seemingly harmless comment to someone, only to have them explode back at you? Or had the feeling that you’ve lost control of yourself in a moment where emotions take over and your reaction is out of proportion with the situation? Where afterwards you think: what just happened to me? How did I lose control like that?
Well, perhaps you didn’t lose control so to speak, but rather your amygdala, the emotional centre of the brain, took control. This is what Daniel Goleman coined as the ‘Amygdala Hijack’.
Our brains have evolved in a way designed to protect us. When stimulus enters the brain, it reaches the emotional centre the tiniest moment before it reaches the neocortex, the rational part of the brain. If a particular stimulus feels threatening to the amygdala, which may be a genuine threat, it can cause the amygdala to ‘hijack’ the brain, so that we can no longer think rationally or gain perspective. We go into fight, flight or freeze mode. In moments of true threat, this can be essential to our survival.
The challenge is that the same response can be triggered by things that feel threatening to our immediate safety, but in reality are not. It could be as simple as a sentence said in a certain tone, or some critical feedback from a colleague. Our amygdala can perceive this as a threat and go into survival mode. We do not feel psychologically safe.
When this happens, it is challenging to have productive conversations, to listen to each other, to see the other’s perspective and practice empathy, or to access the rational parts of our minds.
So how can we short circuit this response? In the moment itself, the answer is to pause. Breath. Wait for about 6-8 seconds before responding. This might feel like an eternity in the moment, but it’s the time needed to ensure the information can also reach your neocortex so that you can rationally choose how to respond to the situation.
Yet we can also focus on building trusting working relationships and a team culture with high levels of psychological safety, so that we feel a little less threatened overall.
You might be reading this thinking, I don’t think we have a problem with psychological safety in our team. We don’t really have conflicts and we are all nice to each other. Yet this is not necessarily a measure of having a psychologically safe environment. Being ‘nice’ and conflict averse can also lead to another symptom of a lack of trust in a team: being stuck.
This can happen when everyone is so busy keeping the peace that no-one dares to share or pursue new ideas or voice critical opinions or feedback. It’s not a negative culture, at least on the surface, but it’s not a particularly innovative one either.
Psychological safety does not mean that we never experience conflict. It’s that we can approach conflicts and feedback in a healthier way. We shift from being adversaries to collaborators, as Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google, put it. This means we can sit next to each other rather than across from each other, and put the problem in front of us rather than between us, as Brené Brown describes in her Engaged Feedback Checklist.
Changing a team's culture and communication patterns is not easy. Yet you can start with yourself, by role modelling the kind of behaviour you want to see. Have those tough conversations. Admit when you don’t know something. Acknowledge when you got something wrong or made a mistake. Be vulnerable. Ask for everyone’s input and value different perspectives and ideas. Start from the assumption that people have good intentions. And work on building trust.
Trust is a key aspect of psychological safety. In the Thin Book of Trust, Charles Feltman (2008) defines trust as: “choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person's actions.” In other words, if I do not trust you, I am not going to risk my ideas, feelings, projects I care about or anything else important to me by giving you any kind of power over them, whether through knowledge of their existence or a role in their implementation.
So what is required to build the trust needed to make this choice?
In their book ‘Unleashed: the unapologetic leader’s guide to empowering everyone around you’, Frances Frei and Anne Morriss (2020) break down three core aspects of trust: authenticity, empathy and logic.
Authenticity means I experience the real you.
Empathy means I believe you care about me and my success.
Logic means I know you can do it; your reasoning and judgement are sound.
Most of us have one of these aspects where we are strong and an area where we have room to grow. How can you identify your challenge areas?
If you struggle with ‘Authenticity’, you might ask yourself: how different is your work persona compared to how you are outside of work? Are you perceived as misrepresenting your story, downplaying risks or exaggerating the upside?
If ‘Empathy’ is difficult for you, you can ask yourself: do people see you as putting your interests first? Did an interaction feel all about you? Are you impatient when people take a while to ‘get it’?
If ‘Logic’ is your challenge, you can ask yourself: do people question the rigour of your analysis or your competence to implement an ambitious plan?
Identifying our growth edges is an important first step to working on that area. You can use this framework to reflect on yourself, as well as on your team as a whole.
So we understand the importance of trust and the three cornerstones. But how can we build trust intentionally and what are specific behaviours which build trust?
This is a question which social scientist Brené Brown and her research team set out to answer. What they discovered were seven key behaviours, which they call BRAVING trust. This stands for:
Boundaries: I can trust you if you are able to set and communicate clear boundaries and to respect boundaries in others.
Reliability: I trust you because you do what you say you will do.
Accountability: when you make a mistake, you own it, learn from it and don’t cover it up.
Vault: I know if I share something with you, you won’t break my trust and share it elsewhere. I know you are not someone who comes to me and says, ‘I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but…’
Integrity: you put what is right over what is easy.
Non-judgement: I can tell you how I am really doing and ask for help without you judging me.
Generosity: you show up with a mindset of generosity and assuming positive intent in the words, actions and behaviours of others.
These behaviours don’t only build trust between me and another person, they also build trust in ourselves. This checklist can be used as a reflection tool as part of feedback and to identify room for growth in different relationships, as Brené breaks down in this episode of her podcast Dare to Lead.
Another key finding from Brene Brown’s research is that trust is built in small moments.
Often we imagine that we have to pull off big, grandiose gestures to win people’s trust. Yet it’s not like that at all.
Maybe you put down your phone and really listened to me when I came to you to ask for advice.
Maybe you offered support without expecting anything in return.
Maybe it was something as simple as remembering a small thing about my life - like the name of my dog.
All of these small and seemingly mundane things show that we pay attention, that we are willing to give each other time and that we care. That is what builds trust, moment after moment, over time.
Stephen Covey, author of ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, calls this the emotional bank account. When you do small things that build trust, it adds deposits into the emotional bank account I have with you. When there is a healthy level of positive deposits over time, we know we rely on each other, there is a depth to the trust.
But it can also only take a small moment to make a big withdrawal from the account. Trust erodes in small moments as well. And small moments of breaking trust can lead to larger withdrawals from the emotional bank account than small moments add to it.
Building trust and psychological safety is not magic. Pay attention to the small things. Being present, listening, being curious and non-judgemental, being reliable and offering support. Over time these small acts will build trust. And that’s when magic can happen.
Brown, Brené (2018): Dare to lead. Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. Random House.
Covey, Stephen (1989): The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press.
Delizonna, Laura (August 2017): “High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It”. In: Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it
Edmonson, Amy (1999): “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams”. In: Administrative Science Quarterly, 44 (2),350-383.
Feltman, Charles (2008): The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work, Thin Book Pub Co.
Frei, Frances and Morriss, Anne (2020): Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader's Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You, Harvard Business Review Press.
Goleman, Daniel (1995): Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Bantam Books.