56: It all Boils Down to Psychological Safety

Building psychological safety may be the most important thing you do as a manager. Creating an environment in which people feel comfortable acknowledging mistakes, asking questions, offering ideas and feedback, and experimenting and failing, enables a team to think big, be nimble, and accomplish great feats.

In this episode, I’ll touch on what psychological safety looks like in the workplace and why it’s important, the difference between psychological safety and trust, why people don’t speak up and what you can start to do about it.

Much of what I share I learned from the book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth by Amy C. Edmondson.

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Read the related blog article: Why Psychological Safety is More Important than Trust

Key Takeaways:

  • Psychological safety describes people’s perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context. In other words, what does someone expect will happen if they speak up at work.
  • Psychological safety is what makes integrating diverse knowledge, perspectives, and skills is possible. It’s what enables teams to think big, be nimble, deal with conflict, give and receive feedback, and so much more.
  • Psychological safety shows up in every interaction regarless of medium. The level determines whether someone speaks up when they have a different point of view, notice a mistake, have a question, have bad news or feedback to share, or anything where there is potential risk of looking stupid or incompetent, being seen as a failure, coming across as mean or argumentative or otherwise putting themselves out there.
  • We can’t see when someone doesn’t speak up. It’s a silent act so no one knows except the person who didn’t speak up, making it hard to do anything about it.
  • Psychological safety and trust are two different things. Psychological safety is a function of the group and is about immediate response, where trust is between two individuals and about belief in future action.
  • There are three failure archetypes: (1) Preventable failures are deviations from recommended procedures that produce bad outcomes; (2) Complex failures occur when a series of factors collide in ways that have never happened before; (3) Intelligent failures are the result of a thoughtful foray into new territory where you’re going to have to get things wrong in order to get things right.
  • To build psychological safety, how you frame failure is critical and highly dependent on the type of work and failure you are likely to see. Is intelligent failure seen as necessary in order to be creative and learn? Is the act of identifying a mistake – preventable or complex failure – considered heroic because you’re helping to improve the outcome?
  • When you focus on purpose and remind people what’s at stake, you reinforce psychological safety. The outcome or impact becomes more important than the fear of speaking up.
  • To encourage others to speak up, you must be crystal clear in your ask and invite their response through proactive inquiry. Do not wait for people to speak up.
  • It’s important to respond with appreciation for whatever has been shared, even if you disagree, in order to encourage future speaking up. When a new idea or experiment doesn’t work out, take time to discover the learnings and celebrate what came from it as a way to destigmatize failure.

Additional Resources:


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