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Psychological Safety: Buzzword or Best Practice?

Updated: 4 days ago

In modern management theories and practices we hear a lot about the importance of psychological safety in building strong, high performing teams. What exactly is a high performing team, and what role does psychological safety play in creating one?

What is a High Performing Team?

High Performing Teams (HPT) work cohesively, leverage collective strengths, and continuously strive for excellence, resulting in outstanding performance and sustained success. Some of the hallmarks of the HPT are clear shared vision and goals, effective communication, strong leadership, trust and collaboration, diverse skill sets, accountability and ownership, adaptability and resilience, and engagement and motivation.

In Google's Project Aristotle, which had the mission to discover what made Google's top teams the best of the best, they found that there are simply two common factors for HPT:

Psychological safety, and equal voice.

What is Psychological Safety?

In the most basic definition psychological safety is simply trust. Trust in your teammates, trust in management, and trust in the organization. To go a little deeper, it is a shared belief among team members that the team is a safe place for taking risks: such as asking questions, offering new and different ideas, sharing and receiving feedback, and challenging the way things are. It does not mean that the team members necessarily need to like each other, they just need to trust each other. Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School professor and author of The Fearless Organization says psychological safety is:

"felt permission for candor."

In other words, people can speak up without fear of negative consequences.

How is Psychological Safety Related to High Performing Teams?

When people feel permission for candor they are more likely to speak up than when they don't. More ideas are brought to the table, we can look at problems from multiple sides, and we can debate issues. But psychological safety goes deeper than just the ability to say what's on our minds.

It allows us to think smarter thoughts.

To understand how psychological safety allows us to actually be smarter, we have to understand a little bit about how the brain works. We're actually somewhat hardwired for mediocrity. In very basic terms there are 2 areas of the brain in charge of thinking.

For simplicity's sake we'll call them the mid brain, and the upper brain.

  • The mid brain (among other things) handles well known tasks (e.g. driving to work), categorizes incoming information (e.g., important, relevant, irrelevant, not important), stores emotions and memories, scans for danger, activates immediate responses and our fight, flight, freeze, fawn coping mechanisms. The mid brain is fast and efficient. It uses fewer glucose resources to operate. Its efficiency is why it is perfect for handling mundane, daily tasks. It can run these "programs" in the background while still giving you access to your upper brain in the foreground. For instance, this is the reason you can drive your car while having an intellectual conversation with someone next to you ... or think about what's for dinner.

  • The upper brain (among other things) houses our pre-frontal cortex which is responsible for complex rational thought, regulation of emotions, problem solving, regulation of spontaneous speech (did I say that out loud?), delayed responding, flexibility, innovation, etc. The upper brain is slower, and uses a lot more glucose resources to operate than the mid brain.

Under "normal" circumstances your upper brain is in charge, and your mid brain runs in the background. However, when the mid brain senses danger, it takes over. It activates the sympathetic nervous system which (among other things) takes the upper brain offline and effectively puts the mid brain in charge so that you can act fast and conserve glucose energy for use in other areas of your body ... like running away or fighting.

To your mid brain danger is danger. It can show up as physical danger, emotional danger, fear, anxiety, stress, overwhelm, etc. In other words the danger of being eaten by a tiger and the danger of being ridiculed by your team and/or boss is the same to your mid brain.

A Lack of Psychological Safety Feels Like Danger to Your Brain.

When you don't feel "permission for candor" what you feel is fear. To your mid brain fear is danger. The mid brain then kicks in the sympathetic nervous system and we lose access to our pre-frontal cortex and with it our ability for complex problem solving, innovation, and creativity. We're left with access to what we already know, and what has worked in the past. We're less open to new ideas and less likely to let go of outdated beliefs. In other words, we have access to more mediocre responses. We're simply not as smart. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Which is Better, Speed or Innovation?

More traditional "command and control" management environments where psychological safety is not a concern can be efficient. We can get things done faster when the work is not questioned. The rules are handed down, orders are taken, and people do what they are told to do because it is their job. This can work well when employee input, creativity, and problem solving are not required. In this environment risk taking and candor often come with the fear of retribution, therefore innovation and creativity are hindered.

Psychological safety, or the absence of danger, allows us to operate with our full brains and we become more innovative and creative... or smarter. The upper brain works more slowly and uses more resources than the mid brain, but it has the capability for more complex thought. It has the ability to question old ways of thinking and incorporate new information. We effectively slow down our thinking to speed up our innovation.

Psychological Safety sets the stage for building the traits of a high performing team. Without psychological safety your team is much more likely to rely on what they already know and what has worked in the past. They are more likely to take the "safe" path rather than take a risk.

I'd love to hear from you. How do you help facilitate psychological safety in your teams?

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Some part of my brain is now trying to figure out why fear of candor doesn’t seem to kick in very often.

Replying to

Hmmm, you must be over 40 😂

"At 20, we worry about what others think of us. At 40, we don't care what they think of us. At 60, we discover they haven't been thinking of us at all."

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