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What is Psychological Safety?

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You have probably heard of the term, but where does it come from, what does it mean, and how is it relevant to agile ways of working?

Background information

Amy Edmondsen is Professor of Leadership at Harvard, and author of plenty of publications on teaming, pyschological safety, and organisational learning. She is credited with introducing the concept of 'team psychological safety'. In 1999, she published a paper titled: 'Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams'.

In 2012, Google started an internal study called Project Aristotle to discover the secret to great teams. The best and brightest spend 5 years without getting much wiser. Until they came across 'psychological safety'. They now realised it wasn't about who was on the team, but how they worked together.

Around the same time, Daniel Coyle was working on his book 'The Culture Code', in which he also identified psychological safety as one of the key ingredients.

What does Psychological Safety mean?

Mrs Edmondsen defines it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

Psychological safety refers to our perception of how the group will respond to us and our actions. Can I be myself? Can I speak up? Can I make mistakes? Can I take risks?

In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

How do you build Psychological Safety?

Mrs Edmondson suggests the following 3 phases:

Step 1: Set the stage: By being open and honest about the nature of the journey/challenge you start building safety. You don't have all the answers. It will require experimentation, which means we could make mistakes.

Step 2: Invite action & model: Identifying things people do when they feel safe and then finding ways of encouraging those actions. Ask people to give feedback – to contribute their ideas, to speak up, to ask questions, to share their mistakes. Model the behaviour you want to see; encourage a growth mindset.

Step 3: Monitor your response to actions identified in Step 2: our response to these actions is just as important as the actions themselves. Do you welcome honest feedback, or are you defensive? Are people punished for mistakes, or are they celebrated as learning opportunities? Do you dismiss questions, or welcome more? How do you handle the negatives that undoubtedly come on your path?

Building safety is about being aware of our own actions. Every action we take sends a signal to the people around us.

Read more in this useful guide, which I've summarised above.

Common misconceptions

This Learner Lab guide lists 4 common myths:

  1. Psychological safety is all about being nice and avoiding discomfort. This is False; in fact it requires honesty and candor; constructive feedback, tough conversations. To ackowledge problems in order to solve them.

  2. Psychological safety means a guaranteed position on the team. False again; In a healthy organization, our best bet to securing our position is continual growth and development. Psych safety encourages and rewards these types of behaviors and engagement.

  3. Psychological safety comes from the top down. Perhaps surprisingly, in fact it is hyper-local, meaning every team member influences feelings of safety for those around them. Daniel Coyle calls this the 15 feet around you (4.57m for those who prefer the metric system).

  4. Psychological safety is static. Nope. The feeling of safety is fluid and requires ongoing attention. You can build or lose it over time.

How is Psychological Safety relevant to Agile?

It creates an environment where learning is encouraged, team collaboration is enhanced, innovation flourishes, and continuous improvement is embedded. Teams that feel safe learn better. Teams that feel safe perform better. Sounds agile to me!

Sources? Plenty!

Some have already been linked above. Check out Mrs Edmondson's book. I highly recommend this Google 're:Work' site, and this guide.


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