How to Cultivate the Essential Quality of Psychological Safety Within Your Team

“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”  Ralph Nichols

What do the strongest teams in business have that other teams don’t have? Over the next several weeks, we will explore what tech giant Google discovered during Project Aristotle, a detailed study into why some of its teams thrived while others failed.

Let’s start by taking a look at the first and most important quality for building a strong team in the workplace–psychological safety. You can find a summary of all the characteristics in a recent blog post 

What is psychological safety? And, how can you encourage this essential quality in your teams?

A sense of safety with our co-workers and those we interact with on a regular basis means we  feel valued and listened to when we speak. They’ll be open to hearing all of our ideas, and we in turn will feel comfortable enough to speak freely Even though someone might challenge our assumptions, not with the intent to belittle us, instead with the higher intention of wanting to understand the “why” behind our thoughts and opinions.. If someone wasn’t sure they agreed with our conclusions, they wouldn’t tell us we were wrong, rather they may  say things like “Tell me more about that,” or “What information did you learn as the background for that statement?” Or, “What do you see that I’m not seeing?”

The best advice we can pass along about how to create psychological safety in your organization comes from Oprah Winfrey. In a recent interview, she said that after interviewing more than 37,000 people on her talk show over 25 years, she realized all her guests had one thing in common: “Everyone you meet just wants to be seen and heard.”

Here’s how to make sure everyone on your team feels seen and heard: 

  1. Hire the Right People for the Right Roles. The responsibility of the leader is to develop other leaders. It all startsby making sure everyone has a job that plays to their strengths. In the words of Jim Collins, a renowned business expert, teacher and writer, you need to get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus and the right people in the right seats. Leaders of companies that go from good to great, Collins writes, start with “who.”

If you start to realize that someone is not in the right job or is not right for your team, no matter how good of a person they might be, it’s time to have a critical conversation with them. At Institute Success, we can help you do that, and help you improve your overall communication with your staff. 

  1. Make Sure Every Team Member Feels Valued. To create an environment where everyone can feel seen and heard, the leader first needs to get agreement on how we define success organizationally. We need to be working toward a shared vision of success. First, ask yourself how YOU define success. Then make sure you know how each member of your team defines success. Only then can you create a shared vision, together. If you want to push the company forward, but your employees are satisfied with the status quo, it is your job – actually your mission as a leader – to enroll people into a bigger vision of possibility. How do you do this? Not by focusing on what is wrong, but by concentrating on strengths and then asking yourself: how do we take this even further?

Let’s use an example from one of our past clients. This particular leader wanted to grow his business, but his employees were comfortable with the way things were. So, he took his two highest performing salespeople, who weren’t so great at keeping track of client data and partnered them with people who got a tremendous amount of energy from collaborating and inputting all the specific details around clients to create new goals and big plans of action. At their weekly meetings, the leader asked this team to think about what was working and how they could do more of it. They incorporated the production department in these meetings too because they were also essential to this vision of success. Together, they came up with a shared vision of 20% growth. And because the team had clarity around a shared vision and had formed bonds of psychological safety, their growth that year was 35%! 

Together, we can do more than when we work as an island. Or in a silo. Don’t let your company create silos, where each department refuses to collaborate with other departments. Encourage cross-collaboration for greatest success.

  1. Cultivate Trust and Inclusion. Trust between employees and senior management was the second most important contributor to job satisfaction, according to a 2015 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM. (The first factor was respectful treatment of all employees at all levels). Neuroscience research tells us that the brain chemical oxytocin causes us to reciprocate trust by being trustworthy. When we listen to one another, we encourage the release of oxytocin, which engenders further positive interactions, rather than the fear and stress response from cortisol, which is released when psychological safety is absent.

It is our job as leaders to connect without judgment. It is also our job to make sure that everyone is included and invested in our vision of success. If someone in your workplace or on your team feels excluded, that emotional pain registers in the brain the same way physical pain does. A great leader understands that everyone needs to feel included (think back to how everyone wants to be seen and heard) to be functioning at their best.

Institute Success Tip: Be willing to be vulnerable. To paraphrase advice from the research professor and best-selling author Brené Brown, when leaders are willing to be vulnerable, not perfect, that creates standards for the organization that perfection isn’t the goal, but continuous improvement is. From time to time, it’s important for us to ask: What else is going on that I may not be seeing?