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Forget building trust, focus on psychological safety

June 25, 2018

Imagine this, you are at the weekly company meeting in a room of 60 people. All of them are co-workers who you have been working with for several years. You feel engaged and committed to the goal set by your company. And there has always been a feeling of openness, respect and the ability to discuss new or other ideas. You feel there is safety! While the CEO is presenting a new idea, you feel this is not a good idea. You feel it is in conflict with the company culture. So, like you have always done, you raise your hand and speak up. Unlike similar earlier situations, your comment gets waved away, followed by a reprimande of the CEO in front of the entire group:

"I don't like your negative attitude , this idea has been thought of long and hard. I am sick of you constantly asking about 'why this decision is being made' and you proposing other ideas, reopening the discussion. Stop doing that!"

How would you feel?

Shocked, humiliated and heartbroken. That's how I felt. In complete shock because I was under the impression I worked in an psychologically safe environment. We were enabled - and even expected - to speak up when we had different ideas. That's what made it a great company. But somewhere along the way, things had changed and I hadn't noticed there was no longer a safe environment. Actually, there was psychological safety, from my own team. During the break right after the incident, while I was sitting at a table looking down, feeling embarrassed, humiliated and fighting against tears. My team sat down, forming a protective circle around me. No words were spoken, but it felt very safe. After that moment, safety was gone and hardly anyone spoke up with a different opinion during those company meetings for a very long time.

Feeling safe

A few weeks ago I found a movie shared by Simon Reindl, fellow Professional Scrum Trainer, about Psychological safety. This movie made an huge impact on me. I wasn't aware of the concept but I could relate it to my experience described above. Please take a few minutes to watch this video.

We have all been in a situation where it didn't feel right or safe to speak up. Or to ask a question. We all have had those gossip-ish discussions at the coffee machine after the presentation of the new 5 year strategy, while you had a 5 year strategy presented last year as well. Or one of those useless team retreats. Take the next step as a team, where a lot of post-its are spilled with 'world peace' like phrases. In the future we want to improve our communication, speak up and be proactive. A day not having to work, get a free lunch and go back to doing the same thing we were already doing. Not feeling safe to address the elephant in the room.

Psychological safety

Psychological safety is the belief that no one will be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.

It is a group-level construct, meaning that is something experienced by the entire group. As a group, each individual perceives that the group will give them the benefit of the doubt when they take a risk. Opposed to trust, meaning that I as an individual give my fellow team members the benefit of the doubt when I take a risk. Do I trust my fellow team members enough they will back me up is an individuals. Basically making a 1-1 economic risk assessment trying to figure out how a certain action will impact my position in a group.

Trust is a “conscious calculation of advantages, a calculation that in turn is based on an explicit and internally consistent value system” (Schelling, 1960: 4; ref in Kramer, 1999). With trust we focus on others potential actions and trustworthiness to protect ourselves. When we look a psychological safety, it is slightly different. Do others give you the benefit of the doubt based on your actions?

Not trust but safety!

Over the last couple of years I have referred to the 5 dysfunctions of a team by Patrick Lencioni in many of our training courses and workshops. And when working with teams, one of the first items on the agenda was building trust. But trust is the wrong thing to focus on and more difficult to influence on a team level. Psychological safety is a group based characteristic based on the level on interpersonal safety each of the members of the team experience. They often hold similar perceptions of psychological safety. Because teams have many of the same influences and experiences together. For example, they often share the same manager, go though the same hiring and review procedures.

The presence or absence of psychological safety tends to be experienced at the group level of analysis (Edmondson, 1999a), unlike trust, which pertains primarily to a dyadic relationship –whether between individuals or collectives such as firms (as in supplier relationships).

Amy Edmondson, 2003

How to build psychological safety

Even Google has learned that their best teams had psychological safety. It's the first step towards great teams, it enables innovation, risk taking, group decision making and much more. Amy Edmondson described three things you can do as a leader to enable psychological safety.

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem, as opposed to an execution problem
    So the work we do nowadays is so complex that we cannot know the precise outcome and which path to follow upfront. However, we have been modeling our work is such a way. This is why in the past 10 years we are focus more on agility and this is why the Scrum Framework is so successful, since it accommodated collaboration in a complex environment. Acknowledging that we know less then we do know frames the work as a learning problem. Look into the Cynefin framework
  2. Acknowledge you own fallibility
    Acknowledge you don't know everything and inviting people to come to help. For example, when people use TLA's (Three Letter Abbreviations), ask what they mean instead of mindless nodding you pretend to understand. You'll be surprised how hard people need to think about what they actually mean.
  3. Model curiosity by asking a lot of questions
    The best model on the market to start modeling curiosity is the Scrum Framework. A lightweight framework with focussed events where asking questions and engaging in conversation is facilitated. Or like I did once with a team that tended to assume the customer thought of everything. I asked the team: "I can think of at least three things that are unclear and I will ask them, I expect at least three question from you." Worked great and over time they started asking question by themselves.

There are more steps to take but these are the first and very difficult to do. Start creating psychological safety in your organizations today! Or you might end up with an organization where bad things happen for you, for your team members or customers.



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