Many years ago, early in my management career, I had an employee who came into my office and said these words to me.
Actually, it wasn’t quite that nice. Here’s what she actually said.
“You are being a real a**hole lately.”
And she was right.
I was stressed. I didn’t really know what I doing. And I was being careless in how I treated my people.
I’m profoundly thankful that she came into my office that day and said those words to me. She got my attention and my behavior changed.
Not many people would have done what she did because it is often not safe to do so. Generally, calling your boss an a-hole is not good for your career.
But, I was friends with the people I managed; hang-out-together-outside-of-work-a lot friends with them. So, when she walked into my office that day to give me some hard and needed feedback, she wasn’t afraid.
She trusted me. She knew I cared about her. And she assumed that if I knew that I was making hers (and others) lives miserable, I’d want to know so I could do something about it.
She had achieved at work what some would describe as “psychological safety.”
Wikipedia defines the concept this way:
Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as “feeling able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn 1990, p.708). In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected.
When I reflect on my own work experience, I feel like my job satisfaction has been strongly driven by the amount of psychology safety I felt. The freer I felt to speak and contribute, the more I felt connected to and motivated by my work.
Apparently, it’s not just me. In late 2015, Google published the results of an internal research project where they were attempting to answer the question, “What makes a Google team effective?”
After interviewing over 200 employees, studying over 180 teams and evaluating 250 different team member attributes, they made what they describe as an unexpected discovery.
Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.
They identified five key dynamics that differentiated their best teams from the rest. At the top of that list is (you guessed it) psychological safety.
Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
I’m becoming increasingly convinced that this is the secret sauce to creating not just a high-performing team but a great work experience.
If you aren’t sure how much psychological safety you have on your team or in your organization, use these questions as a litmus test.
- Is it unsafe to be unpopular? Does having the “unpopular” opinion affect how you are treated by others, particularly management? Does it affect what opportunities you have access to?
- Do people self-censor in meetings? Do they choose not to share opinions for fear of consequences or reaction?
- Do people avoid giving each other feedback, particularly anyone higher on the org chart?
- Does making a mistake get held against you in the future? Is failure fatal?
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, then you have some work to do. But, it’s work worth doing.
One of the things that they don’t address is relationship building. In the story I shared earlier, the reason my colleague felt safe in telling me I was being an a-hole was because we had a strong personal relationship in place.
That might be a good place to start. You don’t need to be best friends with your peers or those you manage, but investing in forming a strong and healthy relationship based on mutual trust is a necessary foundation for psychological safety.
Some other good reading on this topic: