How to Promote Psychological Safety on Your Team

Courtney Hemphill ·

Psychological Safety is the shared belief that everyone within an organization can take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed. Almost as simple as it sounds – it’s the idea that employees feel safe to do their best work.

When an organization prioritizes psychological safety it creates an environment that also promotes inclusivity. It ensures that everyone from different backgrounds, mindsets, and life experiences can share their thoughts or ideas and not be punished for them. Organizations that are struggling to retain employees or attract new and diverse talent should look at their processes for encouraging employees to take calculated risks without punishment.

These ideas are not new, but the terms to describe them are. The push for this kind of working environment and the importance of the resulting conversations has led to a need for the proper language to express these ideas.

Creating a New Language

Companies increasingly recognize that the most productive teams are those that consist of members that are able to easily collaborate due to a shared sense of trust and belonging. Google’s Project Aristotle is maybe the most well known, large scale study into what makes effective teams. But what does it mean then for people to join a team, project, or initiative, and feel a sense of belonging? When companies ask this question, they realize the need for a common language and terminology to help root these concepts in their organization.

This is where terms like Psychological Safety come from – and that’s just the beginning. Once we begin to have these discussions, we can start looking at new concepts like Radical Candor, existing terms such as Radical Transparency, and even age-old methodologies like NVC.

Radical Candor, a concept developed by Kim Scott, explains how to effectively manage employees. The main concept revolves around giving feedback to a team member or a direct report. When giving someone feedback or critique you are presented with a unique opportunity to shape how that person views the values of the larger organization. Most people will call giving someone hard feedback constructive criticism, however, Kim Scott suggests that we should practice something slightly different called Radical Candor. This is when you tell someone the hard truth but you say it in a way that conveys empathy for the person and their context.

You are self-aware in the way that you are communicating: speaking truthfully and constructively, respecting the other person and remaining empathetic the whole way through.

In return, the person receiving the feedback has the opportunity to tell you how they perceived the conversation. This ensures that both parties understood the message in the way that it was meant to be conveyed. Most of the time, we believe ourselves to be candid and caring, when in fact we may be coming across as “obnoxiously aggressive”. This open dialogue creates the space we need to ensure we are evaluating the way that we communicate with each other.

Radical Transparency, on the other hand, is the idea that teams and individuals are provided the information and tools they need to do their jobs effectively. Radical Transparency addresses not only what should be done, but why something should be done. Giving employees the opportunity to understand the complexities and reasoning behind their work allows them to make progress without constantly asking questions or seeking permission.

Finally, NVC (nonviolent communication) is an approach developed in the 1960s to provide effective strategies for resolving conflicting needs so that all participants have their core needs met. NVC identifies shared needs and then facilitates the collaboration to develop ways to meet those needs. It has been used in government negotiations, relationship counseling, in education, and many more contexts.

When you implement these concepts it lets individuals clearly see their guardrails so that they might then take managed risks and feel safe in doing so. They will feel empowered to try new things in their daily efforts and the impact will be net positive and promote a culture of continual learning. By understanding their limitations and not feeling fearful of punishment teams are able to move more freely and contribute more effectively to the overall organization.

Shifting Dynamics from Counting Code to Collaborative Teams

As we continue thinking about how teams work together, we can see how dynamics have changed over the years. There has been a dramatic shift in the emphasis placed on what we call effective teams – simply put, teams that work well together to deliver results.

Teams use to be measured in the number of lines they coded, now teams are measured on the quality of the product they have delivered. We have identified that we should be measuring and emphasizing ways that teams can provide 10x in value, not 10x in lines of code.

One thing that has helped increase collaboration across teams is making them smaller. Instead of large, often offshored teams, we can now have groups of four to 10 balanced teams with dedicated product managers and designers that work on specific services. There might be fifty of these groups across the company but each has a distinct bounded context that they focus on. This type of close-knit collaboration is a driving mechanism of the need for emotional intelligence (EQ). Being aware of and controlling your interactions and communications with others is an increasingly critical skill for individuals on a team.

Investing in ways that people can better understand themselves and their coworkers will foster the sense of belonging and increase collaboration across the team.

At Carbon Five, we developed Product Dartboard, a tool that we use to assess the effectiveness of a team. Each member of the team completes the assessment individually and anonymously. You’ll rate your current team or project on 12 attributes, each one aimed at understanding a different part of a successful project – Process, Product, and Team.

Dimensions cover questions like: do I feel like my voice has weight within this group? Do we have a collective understanding of the value we are bringing with the work we are doing? Do we have an ability to capture the measurement of that impact? And so on. It gives a score to the collective teams and identifies the gaps that need improvement.

We run the Product Dartboard at different stages in the project to continually assess and see improvements. It creates a lens back to the teams itself, showing us strengths and weaknesses to guide us in our growth. We value this part of our process because it brings a major element of humanity into every project.

Bring integrity to your systems. Bring your humanity to work.

People easily get caught up working really hard towards deadlines and meeting requirements. In our drive to constantly create impact in our careers and on our teams, we often end up losing our humanity in the process.

No one wants to interact like a bunch of robots, constrained by a formulaic process that does not allow for creative adaptation based on learnings of what can be improved. So even if you don’t remember these specific terms or processes; simply remember to be a human when you show up at work.

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