Dec 12, 2022 10 min read
Psychological safety in a team: Whose responsibility?
As soon as I waded into the sea in the beautiful (and luckily) deserted Goa beach on a grey rainy morning , I heard a whistle. The orange-clad life-guard emerged from nowhere, and shouted a warning: Don't go beyond this point, the sea is choppy today.
I immediately felt a sense of reassurance- somebody was watching my back.
I reflected that as coaches, trainers and facilitators, we have a responsibility to create a space of safety for the group, even while encouraging them to deep dive in their inner selves to see their blind spots and shadows. It's difficult to see our dysfunctional behaviour patterns, but if we want to grow we need to confront them. A good facilitator or coach will push members out of their comfort zone. At the same time, they will create boundaries that members know are assured: confidentiality, timeliness, being held in a space of mutual respect... The client is responsible for her own growth and has the wisdom to find her own solutions even while being supported. And that any feelings, questions, disagreements, discomfort, resistance that the client brings into the exploration are all okay.
Similarly, leaders have a responsibility to create a safe environment for their team.
Organizations, especially factories go through a great deal of trouble to ensure physical safety for their employees. There are safety week celebrations, safety awards, safety training, a Safety Manager, etc. But what about ensuing psychological safety?
Psychological safety has a fairly practical definition. Amy Edmondson describes it as “the shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” How many times have you heard a leader say “Everyone should feel free to share their real views”? But how many times have you seen post-meeting, when people are leaving the room meaningful glances are exchanged between a few , and everyone is thinking the same thing: ‘This will never work.’ And not a single voice was raised.
Real safety in a team is best measured by how willing team members are to speak up with confidence that they will not be diminished or rejected in some way.
Some ways in which I've seen leaders reduce or disregard team members in a meeting:
1. While a team member is making a presentation, leaders start looking at their phone. Or worse,
2. They start chatting/ giving instructions in a whisper to the person sitting on their right hand side.
3. Everyone has worked hard and prepared their presentations; but the first one gets derailed because of excessive questions/ going into details, then the rest are rushed and some are not heard at all.
4. Some of the points made are quickly dismissed/ interrupted by the leader - and the perception is that the dismissal is based on 'who' has said it rather than 'what' has been said.
5. Nobody knows when the meeting will end, as the track record is that meetings go beyond the scheduled time.
It doesn’t mean the leader should not push the team for results, or not demand excellence or demand completion to non-negotiable deadlines. But when safety is present, dissent is welcomed, mistakes are not only tolerated but presented for learning. There is a “lightness” to how people interact.
Do you agree that these leader behaviours create anxiety, leading to people not giving their best? Have you seen other behaviours in your environment which causes people to feel unsafe?
Here are three tips for senior leaders to promote psychological safety within their teams are:
1. Be Genuinely Curious
During meetings, invite perspectives and contributions from everyone. Provide clarity on purpose and direction, but also use conscious, inclusive language like, “We want to hear from you” and, “Help us shape this next initiative.”
Listen deeply. If you’re one of the senior most in the room, ask junior colleagues for their ideas first. Listen more, talk less and build on suggestions to show acknowledgement: “That’s an interesting angle we hadn’t considered. How can we incorporate it next time?”
2. First listen, and then unfurl your thoughts
One of Nelson Mandela’s leadership practices was, ‘Lead from the back—and let others believe they are in front’,’ which he followed by not telling people what to do, but by first letting them speak, and then creating a consensus.
As a boy, Nelson Mandela was brought up by Jongintaba, king of the Thembu tribe, who influenced Mandela deeply. When Jongintaba met members of his court, he spoke only after all everybody had voiced their views. The chief'’s job, Mandela learnt from his guardian, was not to tell people what to do but to form a consensus.
Richard Stengel, Managing Editor, Time magazine, (who collaborated with Nelson Mandela on Mandela's his bestselling autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, in 1993), writes that when he worked with Mandela, the latter often called meetings of his kitchen cabinet inner circle at his home in a suburb of Johannesburg. The small group of men , Ramaphosa, Thabo Mbeki, and others, would sit around the dining-room table or in his driveway, and shout —to move faster, to be more radical—and Mandela would simply listen.
When he finally did speak at those meetings, he slowly and methodically summarised everyone's points of view and then unfurled his own thoughts, subtly steering the decision in the direction he wanted to without imposing it.
3. Don’t just share your successes, but also challenges
When we are transparent, and share both our strengths and vulnerabilities, ie even the times when you faced a project failure, what we learnt from it, you are role modeling intellectual honesty, the ability to self-reflect, and being real. In the process you are empowering others to speak up when quality is at stake, or there are critical gaps in outcomes.
4. Connect, human to human
When we appreciate others, through emails, or speaking in meetings and spread awareness, champion individuals who have raised a new idea, established a new process or constructively questioned something, we are sending a message about our own inner security.
Other ways are: Taking part in reverse mentoring programs, or partnering with employee resource groups to immerse yourself in environments where you can hear from diverse individuals.
Finally, success is about leading by example; genuinely noticing the value that lies in everyone; and recognizing that everyone wins when organizations eliminate barriers to honest, open contribution.
The paradox of understanding what is happening in your team is that if you lack safety, by definition no one will tell you.
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