Creating Psychological Safety in Teams: Part 1

Our topic is high performance in teams that is enabled by a special kind of emotional fortitude.  The kind of fortitude that is required in response to sustained, very high challenges. It turns out that this is inseparable from creating a climate of psychological safety in which we feel we are in the trenches together.

 As a species we survived and prospered because of our social nature, specifically our extraordinary ability for teamwork.  Conversely, social rejection and social provocation feel like life-or-death for us: hijacking higher thought centres in the brain, undercutting our ability for analytical reasoning and strategic thought.

By contrast, we want productive mental states elicited by positive emotions.  For example, we’ve known for a long time that having social support promotes physiological and psychological resilience via its effects on brain and hormone systems, the adrenal system generally, and the central oxytocin pathways (Ozbay et al., 2007). 

And from a performance point of view a positive inner life increases motivation, optimism and positivity, a sense of control, active coping strategies, high self-esteem and good mental health (Southwick et al., 2017).

How do we support such productive emotions in those around us?  Like many important things it is simple, but not easy.  A critical step is to create a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

As I said, simple, not always easy, and always a work-in-progress.

Teams with psychological safety have a robust feedback culture that focuses on making progress on meaningful goals. They exhibit high levels of trust where people are not afraid to speak up.  They are typified by moderate risk taking and acknowledging mistakes or problems early – and they’re cultures where sticking your neck out is rewarded, not punished.

A key point: teams that have high levels of psychological safety experience lower levels of stress in objectively very ‘stressful’ circumstances. Such circumstances are perceived as challenges rather than threats… and that makes all the difference.

Psychological safety is not about protecting people from high challenge and stress, but rather it’s about exposing them to the pinch of reality while providing the conditions for them to thrive. It is partly about getting the stress levels right.

There is a healthy level of stress that stimulates curiosity and energy through the release of dopamine and adrenaline.  On the other hand, too much or too sustained stress creates distress.

Contrary to some popular belief, when it comes to high performance intense pressure is counterproductive.  As Amabile, and Kramer put it in 2011 “… managers who say — or secretly believe — that employees work better under pressure, uncertainty, unhappiness, or fear are just plain wrong. Negative work life has a negative effect on … performance: people are less creative, less productive, less deeply committed to their work… when their inner work lives darken”.

To create and sustain psychological safety we first have to build a virtuous oxytocin circle where stressors are experienced as challenges, not threats, and where the work culture is strongly prosocial.

Oxytocin is a hormone that provides a raft of benefits including physiological wellbeing (less inflammation, lower blood pressure and heart rate) as well as psychological benefits including feelings of connection, calmness, focus and active coping strategies. 

It is released in the presence of prosociality or good old-fashioned kindness and authentic caring.  We are intrinsically designed to resonate with it, being tied as it is to our survival instincts. 

Oxytocin directly builds trust – and there is no team without trust, just self-concerned, competitive individuals.  Trust combined with a meaningful purpose builds team engagement, passion and high performance (Zak, 2017).  Such a system is self-sustaining as it stimulates the ongoing release of oxytocin which feeds more trust and so on.

And the question is how do we build this oxytocin performance cycle?  We’ll answer this question in Part 2 of Creating Psychological Safety in Teams