Promote psychological safety

Guest contribution by | 17.04.2023

Lead more effectively and make better decisions with psychological safety

If leaders want to lead effectively, they should be able to inspire and motivate their employees. So far so clear. But how do they develop a high-performance team? And what distinguishes an average-performance team from a high-performance team?

Average and low performance teams make fewer mistakes! Wait, doesn’t that sound contradictory? Only at first glance. A closer look reveals that moderate- to low-performance teams don’t make fewer mistakes at all, they simply don’t talk about them. High-performance teams, on the other hand, admit their mistakes and talk about them openly. This allows the whole team to learn from the mistakes of its members and improve.

Why does one team talk about it and another not? Because the team members feel safe enough and do not fear negative consequences. Harvard professor Amy Edmondson introduced the term “psychological safety” for this.¹

As a leader, you have a great responsibility when it comes to creating a work environment that promotes psychological safety. In this article, I would like to provide you with valuable tips and information on how you, as a leader, can build and maintain psychological safety in your team so that you lead your team more effectively and make the right decisions more often.

Psychological safety in a nutshell

Psychological safety describes the feeling of being able to express oneself freely in a work environment and to share ideas and opinions without fear of negative consequences. In other words, it is about an environment in which employees feel safe to admit mistakes, ask for help or suggest creative solutions.

A high level of psychological safety in the company has many advantages: Employees are more motivated, committed and productive when they feel safe and respected in their work environment. Open communication also encourages collaboration and the sharing of knowledge and experience. Creativity and innovation are also encouraged when employees can come up with new ideas without fear of criticism or negative consequences. Overall, psychological safety helps employees feel comfortable and able to realise their full potential.

It is important to distinguish between psychological safety and trust. Trust is a personal characteristic based on a relationship between individuals, whereas psychological safety is assessed at the team level and is therefore a characteristic of the work environment. It is therefore possible for employees to trust a leader but still feel insecure in an environment where criticism or different opinions are not accepted.

How can you create psychological safety in meetings?

Meetings are an important way for teams to share ideas and make decisions. Unfortunately, meetings can also make staff feel unsafe or uncomfortable, especially when dealing with sensitive or controversial issues. Here are some tips on how you as a leader can create psychological safety in meetings:

  1. Give the meeting a clear structure: make sure everyone understands what the goal of the meeting is and what outcomes are expected. A short agenda and timeboxes help to structure the meeting and clarify expectations.
  2. Set clear meeting rules: Clear meeting rules are crucial to creating an environment in which all staff can feel safe. For example, ensure that all staff have the opportunity to express their opinions and ideas without being interrupted or devalued. Avoid allowing opinion leaders to dominate the discussion. And make sure that feedback is always formulated in a constructive and respectful way, as this will prevent employees from feeling attacked and demotivated.
  3. Ensure a balanced distribution of speaking time: In a safe working environment, all employees should have the opportunity to express their opinions and ideas. Make sure that not only the loudest voices are heard, but that the opinions of introverted or shy employees are also taken into account. And take a good look at yourself from time to time. Many leaders tend to claim the highest speaking percentage in a meeting. Ask your team how they perceive the distribution of speaking time or ask for feedback via dot voting.
  4. Handle problems constructively: Problems or conflicts can arise during a meeting. As a leader, you should ensure that problems are not ignored or covered up, but dealt with constructively. In this way you can increase the confidence and security of your staff.
  5. Praise the admission of mistakes: Mistakes are human and unavoidable. As a leader, you should encourage and praise the admission of mistakes rather than punishing or ignoring them. This creates an environment where staff can talk openly about mistakes and find solutions together.
  6. Offer support: A leader should offer support to their employees and help them to develop. An open and respectful work culture and the promotion of open communication and a culture of mistakes can strengthen psychological safety in the company.

Meetings should be a place where all employees can express their opinions and ideas without fear of rejection or consequences. They should also be a place where important and long-term decisions are made.

And how does psychological safety help organisations make better decisions?

Making better decisions with psychological certainty

Anyone who wants to understand why decisions are so often made that are detrimental to an organisation should take a closer look at the findings of Dr Niklas Keller. The German researcher and consultant specialises in leadership, decision-making and change management. In his research, he has found that defensive decision-making is a common problem in many organisations. This is a mindset where decisions are made based on uncertainty, fear and the desire for self-protection, rather than on facts and logical thinking.²

To avoid defensive decision-making, it is important that leaders create a psychologically safe environment. Here are some exemplary measures that can contribute to this:

  • Ensure a comprehensive information base: the old belief that “knowledge is power” can be harmful to an organisation when in doubt. Therefore, leaders should ensure that their staff have low-threshold access to necessary information and resources..
  • Create an environment where risks can be taken: Risks are inevitable when it comes to making decisions. Especially when it is not possible to obtain accurate information and uncertainty must be endured. Managers should encourage their staff to take risks and stand behind them when the expected outcome does not happen.
  • Encourage critical thinking and open discussion: Critical thinking is an essential part of decision-making. When it comes to encouraging critical thinking and open discussion, there are several techniques you can use as a leader. For example, you can encourage staff to ask questions, challenge ideas and consider alternative solutions. You can also emphasise the importance of feedback and constructive criticism to ensure that all participants can express their opinions in a respectful way. By encouraging critical thinking and open discussion, you can ensure that the solutions and decisions made in the meeting are more thoughtful and informed.

In short, psychological safety can help staff work together constructively, leading to better decisions and solutions that in turn advance the common purpose and the team as a whole.

Conclusion

Psychological safety is an essential factor for cooperation in organisations. It is the basis for effective leadership and increases the likelihood of good decisions. As a leader, you can play a significant role in helping your team develop and deal with today’s complex challenges.

If you would like to learn more about psychological safety and Agile Leadership, I am happy to recommend the following German-language articles:

 

Notes (partly in German):

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[1] Edmondson, A. (2018): The fearless organization
[2] Kurswechsel Podcast Folge 211: Warum Organisationen schlechte Entscheidungen treffen – mit Dr. Niklas Keller

Not solving tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s methods? If you don’t want to rely on your luck, we are happy to recommend the New Leadership Professional Training. The training is held in German and can be booked in-house for leadership teams or in an open format for individuals.

Natalia Krueger

Natalia Krueger

“Work smarter, not harder” is Natalia Krüger’s motto, which she conveys to teams as an Agile & Leadership Coaches. Her experience ranges from leadership development in an international corporation, to in-house consulting in lean management, to department management in the public sector. As a psychologist, she is always on the lookout for lifehacks and always builds her methods on empirical evidence. No kitchen psychology, no esotericism, no bullshit. Instead, a combination of facts, pragmatism and humour.