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The Psychological Safety (Net)

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

Psychological safety. One of the necessities to building a high performing team. And one of the most difficult areas to achieve or reclaim (if the team is feeling unsafe). But what is Psychological safety, why is it so important in the workplace, what are some causes of unsafe environments, and what can you do to overcome it?

To start, Psychological Safety taps into how we are wired at our very core, our Primitive Nervous System.

  1. Sympathetic nervous system which triggers our Fight or Flight response when we think we are in danger.

  2. Parasympathetic nervous system which triggers the freeze, play dead, or dissociate behavior.

As the human race evolved, our sense of "danger" has also evolved. For teams in a software development company, they are no longer in danger of being eaten by a tiger (well...depends on where you base your company), instead they fear losing their job, they fear failure. The scope of the fear has changed, but our internal responses haven't.

Some companies make the mistake of just advertising themselves as a "no fear" culture. They believe that by posting a few encouraging posters or telling their staff "It is okay to fail!" that this will automatically create psychological safety. The absence of danger is not enough, we are wired to "be on edge" and expect danger. Instead, humans need to receive constant safety cues in order to engage productively. [Ref: Psychology Today]

Why should companies invest more in psychological safety and creating these safety cues?

I recently read a story about the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. During construction, several crew members perished from falling. Progress was slowed due to the safety issues. Crew members were extra cautious and worked at a slower pace for fear of falling. In addition, it became more difficult to hire crew members as news of the various accidents spread.

In order to get the Golden Gate project back on track Chief Engineer, Joseph Strauss, created a safety net that spanned the bridge. and subsequently saved many lives during construction. In addition, hard hats were introduced, respirator masks to keep men from inhaling lead-based fumes, glare-free goggles, on-site hospital, and other safety measures were introduced.

What happened after the installation of the safety measures? Productivity increased by 25% {Ref: Construction Pros}

And, while no one might be at risk of dying in the workplace, a company that does not have a culture that helps employees feel psychologically safe can experience much of the same slow down. Team members become extra cautious, employees leave due to frustration and stress, and the reputation of a company spreads making it that much harder to hire someone.

Companies can learn a lot from the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, and what adding a "safety net" can do for employees and productivity.

Here are some symptoms of a psychological unsafe environment:

  • Team members unable to give or receive feedback

  • Team members afraid to ask questions

  • Concerns and issues are not raised in group settings

  • Team members doing the "bare minimum"

  • Playing the blame game if mistakes or failures occur

  • Teams still act like individual contributions vs. team mentality

  • High Employee churn rate

Ways to find out if there is a problem.

  1. Pay attention to online reviews. Take a look at Glassdoor and any online eNPS data that might be available (people are more likely to post anonymously if they don't feel safe).

  2. Run an internal eNPS, Gallup Survey, or Agile Health Check. But make sure it is anonymous! To follow-up with individuals, allow them to volunteer their contact information rather than require it, or worse, secretly record it.

  3. Invest in your HR department by doing some data research into employee churn rate and what individuals say during their Exit Interviews. Why are they leaving? What could have gotten them to stay?

If there is an issue, how do we solve it? I wish there was a quick hit answer for this but honestly, it is still something I am exploring myself.

Here are some things I have used to coached team and leadership:

  1. Create a common, non-threatening language. An example are team working agreements, or roles/responsibilities expectation setting.

  2. Celebrate failures as opportunities to learn! Rather than say "Well that didn't work." and end conversation; instead say "Well it didn't go as planned but let's figure out what happened and replan.

  3. Do NOT compare your employees or teams to one another! That has a 100% guarantee of destroying team mentality. Instead of saying "Why can Team X be more like Team Y?" Instead, work with Team X to understand what they are doing, what they are trying to accomplish, what kind of a team they want to be, and help them to achieve that with no comparison/judgement.

  4. Be the behavior you want to see in others, especially if you are in a leadership position. Create those safety nets for your employees. Demonstrate to them that they have nothing to fear.

  5. Create recurring safety cues, in the form of confidence building. Don't build a culture on "If I don't say anything, you are doing a good job." Instead, give tangible examples of a job well done to your employees and teams on a regular basis. Make sure they are real examples and not empty praise.

If you invest in creating a psychological safe space for your employees, you will see higher retention, more productive employees, and a culture where new, emerging applicants are banging down your door to come work for you.



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