How psychological safety strengthens the ability to act in crises
The COVID-19 crisis, which is shaping our start into the new decade worldwide, is unprecedented both in terms of the depth to which it is permeating our public, professional, and personal lives and of the speed at which it is dictating a new normality. It is the greatest challenge we have ever faced in peacetime. In many respects, the full impact is not yet foreseeable, but we can look to the past for some lessons that will aid us in dealing with various aspects of this crisis. One of these aspects is the way teams work and how they deal with unforeseen events. What can we learn from the best teams? Why is psychological safety the basis of their performance? And how can it now be strengthened so that we can obtain clarity in times of great uncertainty?
What we can learn from the best clinic teams
The crisis is putting the adaptability of organizations to a severe test. Success or failure is determined by the responsiveness of their structural units – their teams. Adapting to the new circumstances can be viewed as a learning process focusing on the psychological safety within the teams themselves.
The Harvard psychologist Amy C. Edmondson discovered this concept back in 1996. At that time, she was investigating teams in a highly volatile work environment where every member had information critical for success – medical clinic teams. In her study, she looked at the relationship between reported errors and recorded performance of the teams on their wards. Her initial thesis: “The best teams are the ones who make the fewest mistakes.” The conclusion of her study: “The best teams are the ones who make the most mistakes.” In her follow-up studies, she identified the concept of psychological safety, which clarified the paradoxical data situation – the best teams dealt openly with mistakes and learned collectively from them, improving their performance in the long term. What is more, they all shared a culture in which every member could safely speak up. In consequence, they were able to identify quickly new risks during their work and to respond to them promptly.
Edmondson defines psychological safety as a team norm, more precisely as the shared belief of all team members that it is safe to take interpersonal risks. These risks refer to situations in which people sense the possibility of personal loss of face and prefer to remain silent rather than question the unusual dosage of the anesthetic, bring up the complex problem yet again, ask the critical question, or point out to the boss the hurdle that is really so obvious. In a psychologically safe environment, these risks are so low that the members can speak up without fear and share information that is crucial for success with the team. The goal is not a consensus of opinion at all times, but to obtain productive results from differences of opinion.
The heart of high-performing teams
Edmondson’s research laid the cornerstone for hundreds of scientific studies on team effectiveness and psychological safety – including Google’s research project “Aristotle” from 2012. The company relied on its core competence, collecting and analyzing all available data on how its best teams work, in the search for their DNA, the basis of their performance. They found evidence for almost all management theories in their data on team performance – all of which contradicted one another. It was not until they incorporated Edmondson's research results into their analysis that the data made sense. They identified psychological safety not only as the most important of five characteristics of a high-performing team, but indeed as its prerequisite. If the psychological safety on the team is too low, the remaining four success factors are ineffective. If it is present, however, it enables innovation, creative problem solving, and joint learning and enhances the commitment and performance of the members.
Paralysis or adaptation: the teams make the difference
“At a time when our models of the world change by the hour, the learning capacity of teams is the difference between adaptation and paralysis.”
This is how Anthony Kosner of Dropbox describes the current situation in his interview with Amy C. Edmondson. Organizations are more dependent than ever on the learning ability of their teams, so it is essential to provide the team members with an environment in which they can safely contribute their ideas for the development of new solutions to the current challenges. Psychological safety is the blueprint for this environment and plays an even more important role in virtual collaboration. Over the years, the mountain of scientific publications has been transformed into an impressive amount of management literature. Edmondson herself draws on her more than 20 years of experience to describe in her latest book, The Fearless Organization, three essential steps that leaders can take to help their teams to achieve a psychologically safe work environment. She does not bind the term “manager” to a hierarchical level, but sees each member of a team as capable of taking over the managerial role in certain situations. Even if the practical implications are from a time before COVID-19 and the resulting changeover to virtual collaboration, these three steps can easily be taken in the digital world – let us show you how.
First: Set the stage for psychological safety!
The first thing to do is to create the space for psychological safety. In concrete terms, this means clearly communicating to your team the complexity of the current situation and the uncertainties that are involved. Team members often assume without further reflection that they should know “what to do.” And that is simply not true at present. The pressure built up in this way can cause important follow-up questions to die on their lips and lead to misunderstandings that ultimately slow down cooperation. When managers create a safe space, when they make it clear that every person’s voice will be heard and that it is completely acceptable to express concerns or uncertainties, they encourage the exchange of important ideas and thinking outside the box. The voice of each and every individual counts, especially in such a complex situation!
In virtual collaboration, this message can be specifically emphasized in digital team meetings during which leaders make these points clear:
- The current situation is exceptional and is new for them as well;
- Employees’ health has the highest priority; and
- The leaders will respect and take into consideration the balancing act between personal and professional life required of each member when working from home.
Second: Promote personal engagement – questions upon questions.
Once the safe space has been delineated, it should be filled with life and colleagues can be encouraged to participate – and this is done by asking questions. “What do you think about this?" “What is your opinion on that?” “What are we overlooking?” The goal is to establish a specific standard – we question the status quo – and this requires the inclusion of every-body’s opinion. This takes time, practice, and a certain amount of self-control, because all too easily we fall into the familiar rut and ask exclusively like-minded people or yield the stage to the ones who talk the loudest. It sends a particularly important signal to the team when even the hesitant, perhaps even “unpopular” members are given a voice.
Realizing this step demands more precise structures in the virtual world than we are used to having in our comfortable analog environment. Subtle indicators in personal communication that normally serve as signals (“How do you feel about that?” “You look thoughtful; what did you notice?”) as well as the informal exchange in the coffee kitchen are lost. In addition to targeted questioning and the equal distribution of speaking time, it helps generally to schedule more time for employees, to give them higher priority, to seek them out more frequently, and to create space for social interaction. This can be done in digital one-on-one lunch appointments and continued in virtual coffee breaks scheduled at a regular time that people are free to attend whenever possible for them. It can also be helpful to obtain feedback from the team in the best reverse mentoring manner so that any blind spots and personal concerns can be uncovered and addressed.
Third: Respond productively – speaking up must feel rewarding!
Promoting engagement comes with the responsibility to coach it. The effects of opening the stage and proactively encouraging interaction evaporate into thin air if the response is not taken seriously. Making a brief public announcement about the added value of the contribution and acknowledging it positively is enough to narrow the power gap and to make it easier for the rest of the team to become more involved in the future. It may even be expedient to describe to members the extent to which their input influenced their supervisors’ own (management) decisions that follow – this also increases the sense of participation and psychological safety on the team.
Again, the virtual world demands more precise structures from us. If contributions are left hanging in the air during virtual meetings, they can be briefly acknowledged in the final written summary or shared in a personal short message. Virtual group formats (e.g., retrospectives) in combination with tools (such as Mentimeter) are good methods for creating the necessary breathing space for active interaction and making it clear that every individual’s perspective is meaningful and worthy of consideration.
Important: These steps build on one another and should be understood as a process that must be executed again and again for the sustained establishment of psychological safety on the team. If, for example, feedback falls on deaf ears, not only will the individual who spoke up ultimately fall silent, but the psychological safety of all members will suffer.
The opportunity in the crisis – practice what you preach!
As in every crisis, there are also inherent opportunities in the one today. Organizations can now demonstrate that they not only preach a culture of transparency and trust, but practice it as well. Managers now need timely information about impending risks so that they can suc-cessfully steer the organization. Moreover, they are dependent on employees who uncover critical issues, raise their voices and speak up. The way the management team deals with this information and its communicators will shape the culture of trust and psychological safety in all parts of the company for years to come. In times of great uncertainty, it is important to regain clarity about your own position. Lay the foundation for this now, and above all – stay healthy!