Creating Psychological Safety in Teams: Part 2

In Part 1 of Creating Psychological Safety in Teams we saw that teamwork is perhaps the defining feature of our species and that leveraging it is the pathway to sustainable high performance.  We also saw that emotional fortitude is created by teams facing meaningful challenges together in an atmosphere of mutual trust, respect and autonomy where people feel they can simply be themselves.  

A key task is to create a virtuous oxytocin circle of trust and purpose that then leads to success that engenders more oxytocin and so on.  And we ended with the question: ‘how do we build an oxytocin performance cycle’?

Part 2 of our discussion will therefore focus on the practical answers to this question of how we create psychological safety in teams.

The main answer is by enabling people to win at work.  Psychological safety is not sought for its own sake.  It is part of an environment where people feel they are being supported to progress on personally meaningful goals.  Interestingly, it is not happiness at work per se that facilitates performance.  It is the other way round.  When we experience regular small wins at work our happiness increases.

So where does psychological safety fit into this equation?  It is what emerges when people experience your support and your practical desire for their success.

Much of this is about old-fashioned management.  The legendary management consultant Peter Drucker repeatedly observed that the basis for great leadership was actually great management.

When people directly perceive you are supporting their success and you do this both practically and psychologically, they will provide high discretionary effort fed by intrinsic motivation. 

So, we create this with practical catalysts such as clear, measurable goals, relative autonomy, resources, time, help and good ideas.  We support these managerial catalysts with nourishers such as trust, respect, encouragement and emotional support (Amabile & Kramer, 2011). That is, with a psychologically safe climate.

So, it should be obvious by now that leaders don’t have to choose between compassion and performance because an authentic desire to assist people creates psychological safety, and we’ve already seen this is a key component in high performance.  And one more important thing:

For the past two years of the pandemic, we have all have been carrying an emotional burden leading to widespread fatigue and languishing. In addition to this burden, leaders have been helping their people cope with the relentless and unnatural stresses of the lockdowns, of disappointments, of chronic uncertainty and so on. The empathy this requires is important, of course, but too much empathy can weigh you down and lead to your burnout.  Fortunately, this can be helpfully avoided. 

We can distinguish between affective and cognitive empathy. Affective or emotional empathy is where we feel something of the negative emotions of others, and prolonged empathy of this sort can lead to our own emotional decline and burnout.  Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is an understanding of the other’s state, without necessarily feeling deeply what they feel. 

Then, this cognitive empathy can be a signal to shift to compassion.  Why? Because compassion is comprised of entirely positive emotions and an active intention to help others.  It is very good for you as well, of course, for the other person.  It is always a win-win.

I’d like to finish with some comments about the current moment in time and then some suggestions moving forward.

In addition to normal work pressures and deadlines, there are pandemic-related pressures on motivation, engagement and retention. If not quite the ‘great resignation’, I think there is a ‘great re-evaluation’ as people look to recalibrate their sense of self, purpose and priorities.

Cultivating psychological safety and demonstrating your commitment to people’s success and aspirations has therefore never been more important.  Make it a priority.

And so, some suggestions:

Prioritise your own wellbeing. We can unintentionally create an unhealthy psychological climate if we are too stressed, taking too much on and just soldiering on through the pressure.  It can send the wrong message about what is expected.  We should also model self-care and self-compassion. 

Take a ‘just like me’ perspective.  What I mean by this is to take an empathic stance to others by putting yourselves in their shoes. We are all just trying to cope.  We all want respect, competence, social status and autonomy.

When there is conflict or a problem, approach it as a collaborator, as a fellow problem-solver. Approach it with curiosity and encourage growth mindsets rather than fear and defensiveness.

And finally, listen with the deliberate intention to give people what I call the ‘three experiences’: that they are heard, understood and accepted.  Doing this you’ll discover that together in the trenches it’s not ‘you and me’, but ‘we’.