Back in 2015, Google released the results of a two-year internal studyindicating that the number one driver of high performing teams was a feeling of team psychological safety. Originally coined by Dr. Amy Edmonson, a professor at Harvard Business School, the term refers to “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
Sounds great, right? Most professionals would probably jump at the opportunity to work on a psychologically safe team. In fact, according to a Pew Research Center survey, 89% of adults say it is essential for today’s business leaders to create safe and respectful workplaces. Yet, what sounds great as a high-level vision often fails to make its way into the daily experiences of employees.
At the heart of this disconnection is one simple truth: Fundamentally, experiencing psychological safety at work means that you feel comfortable making yourself vulnerable in front of the people you see every day. And vulnerability, for most people, is absolutely terrifying.
Vulnerability at work can take many different forms, including:
- Speaking up in a meeting to propose a risky or untested idea
- Admitting publicly that the project you championed failed, and offering lessons learned in the process
- Disagreeing with your boss, or offering a different way forward than they’d previously considered
- Willingly giving up time or resources to help out someone on your team, taking away from the resources you have to achieve your own goals
- Sticking up for a teammate in the face of adversity
- Volunteering to do something you have no idea how to do
- Showing emotions when you’re under pressure or stressed out
Any of these acts leave you open to criticism, failure, the dreaded negative feedback from the boss, or a ding on your annual performance review. They are vulnerable acts because they rely on the belief that others will give you the benefit of the doubt when you’re taking a risk.
The good news is that you don’t need your boss or your leadership team to focus on developing team psychological safety to start cultivating it for yourself. You can learn to be psychologically safe in any working environment by empowering yourself to do so and embracing a mindset that supports it. This doesn’t require anyone else’s buy-in and is a “be the change you want to see in the world” moment. If working in a psychologically safe environment is a priority for you, the very best way to get started is by being the role model for your team in regard to what psychological safety looks like. And the truth is that if you don’t learn to do these things for yourself, no amount of team building activities will help you get where you want to be.
Ready to give it a try? Here are three ways that you can create your own psychological safety at work.
Change your internal dialogue about failure.
Think about it for a moment — when was the last time you let down your guard and made yourself vulnerable at work? If you’re like most people, all of your survival mechanisms in your brain probably went off, either on a conscious or subconscious level. You may have been nervous or experienced anxiety, your body tensed up, your palms started to shake or sweat. Perhaps all sorts of “what if” statements start running through your mind:
- “What if they don’t like my idea?”
- “What if I make the boss mad?”
- “What if I don’t succeed and I lose my job?”
Inherent in all of this is the idea that failure only leads to things that are bad — if you try something and it doesn’t work out, that will mean negative consequences. If that’s the internal dialogue you have running in your head, that is not a psychologically safe space.
However, we can always choose to look at things differently. What if, when you started getting nervous, you paused, took a few deep breathes and told yourself “failure is just a stop on the path to success” or “if this doesn’t work out, I’ll learn from it and make it better next time.” These are ways of looking at failure in a positive light, one that should be embraced rather than feared. Are they any less true than the more negative dialogues? No! They’re just different ways of looking at exactly the same situation. You always have the ability to choose your perspective, and it’s your responsibility to choose one that supports your success, rather than inhibits it.
Always offer the benefit of the doubt.
Psychological safety is different than trust. Trust is when you are giving other people the benefit of the doubt when you’re taking a risk. Psychological safety is just a bit different because instead of you offering others the benefit of the doubt, you are relying on the fact that the people you are making yourself vulnerable to are offering the benefit of the doubt to you.
To say this another way, when you trust someone you are offering the benefit of the doubt to them. When you are in a psychologically safe environment, you are receiving the benefit of the doubt from the group. You have complete control over whether or not you’re offering the benefit of the doubt to someone else, but receiving it from the team might seem like exactly the opposite: Completely out of your control.
But you may have more control over it than you think. Who are you most likely to offer the benefit of the doubt to — someone who has given it to you consistently, or someone who has thrown you under the bus? Most people would pick the former. We are more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to people who give it to us.
Therefore, if you want to cultivate a psychologically safe experience for yourself, make sure you are giving that experience to others liberally! Offer help and resources, even when it’s outside of your job description, celebrate victories with them and be there to remind them that failure is just one step towards success when things don’t work out. What we give to other people we also give to ourselves. And when it’s your turn to receive the benefit, they will be much more likely to offer it.
Know that you can always get another job.
One of the greatest fears that any professional has is getting called in that meeting with human resources and walking out unemployed, unable to provide for themselves and their families. And that’s why so many professionals sit in the sea of mediocrity every day, doing enough to get a passing grade on their performance review but never going above and beyond to avoid getting put on the radar for all the wrong reasons. That financial security is at the heart of the issue — you avoid taking risks because risks mean potential failure and failure means potential job loss. And if you get fired, you think that means you’ll never get another job again.
The reality is that it’s just not true. Ask people who have experienced the sudden loss of a job and they will tell you that it was one of the best things to ever happen to them. They were able to move on from a job they probably weren’t very happy in and find a position that was far more fulfilling. Sure, you might have to accept a transitional position along the way but persistent effort will eventually land you in a job you love.
So, if you knew that no matter what you’ll be financially secure, would that change the way you work? In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown writes that “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weaknesses.” It takes courage to put yourself out there, particularly when you’re in an environment that lacks the leadership will to be psychologically safe. But when you know that you’ll be okay no matter what, there is nothing to be afraid of.