On Team Psychological Safety

I started my career in an environment where people put facts before values. For the first 7 years, I worked for companies where money, rules and benefits were brought, if not immediately, very early into conversation and, many times, the agenda wasn’t much longer than that. Transitioning to working with distributed teams based on different corners around the world—mainly the U.S., Australia—ultimately changed my perspective for the better. We’d talk about values, work ethic, strategy, career paths, leadership styles before the set agenda, to see if we’re a good fit and to understand one another. Becoming more self-aware and more deliberate in my day to day communication was a result of an intensive exposure to new ways of thinking in a safe environment. I was free to speak, question, and share personal details without the fear that being sometimes wrong, awkward, or just not conveying my message in a compelling way would influence my self-worth. I didn’t observe it back then; the shift was gentle, yet decisive.

I was recently asked by Lance Robbins to facilitate a part of a workshop for a company that was in the process of redefining their remote work policies. I was impressed at how they anchored their organizational culture as a foundation for their remote work strategy—as it should be, you might suggest. For that particular segment, we discussed psychological safety at work and how that impacts leadership performance. I facilitated the dialogue between 6 managers who didn’t work together, didn’t know me, and had various degrees of enthusiasm for the topic. Oh, the fun of it! It was productive, but it was really hard to pull off, despite the fact that the group had already internalized the know-how. Being prompted to share the thoughts that show not only your vulnerability, but also of your colleagues’ and your company’s, in front of other people is, without question, uncomfortable. Yet it was a great starter point for their team to work further on creating safe spaces for communication. I surely learned a lot by just being in the middle of it and it made me think seriously at how important psychological safety is for teams of all sizes. In smaller teams, people are generally the guardians of their own safety, being backed-up by a manager who has to play the judge in complicated situations, but how effective is that, really?

As a leader, I’m responsible for my team’s wellbeing as much as I am for the performance of my business as a whole. It’s in our company’s values to never negotiate psychological safety for the sake of a business win. ‘Facilitate opportunity—bet on character’ was always a winning mindset for us. While we can have various policies in place, the way we navigate the topic is still somewhat intuitive and relatively sufficient for this growth stage of our business. However, a business is a system, so it should be easy for us to analyze and identify the leverage points we can then work on and fix for good. Right?

Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in “leverage points.” These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything. This idea is not unique to systems analysis–it’s embedded in legend. The silver bullet, the trimtab, the miracle cure, the secret passage, the magic password, the single hero or villain who turns the tide of history. The nearly effortless way to cut through or leap over huge obstacles. We not only want to believe that there are leverage points, we want to know where they are and how to get our hands on them. Leverage points are points of power.

Leverage Points, Places to Intervene in a System, by Donella Meadows

I think team psychological safety is a leverage point in any organization, however small and should be treated as such. It’s a whole body of work that needs its own champions to take it from a Google doc to a de facto standard. 

I asked Lance what is something that he believes and hasn’t talked enough about yet:

This is the age of innovation for workplaces. Companies that embrace human-centric operations will be the ones that attract and retain the most talented and highly engaged workforces. The old guard power struggle is out. Today’s leaders will win with empathy, trust, and safety.

Lance Robbins

Now I don’t have a beginner’s version for ‘Psychological Safety for startups’, but I can share some of the things that worked for our team and I can wholeheartedly recommend:

  • communicate that this is a topic that you care about and it’s being taken care of
  • have an open talk on how safe people feel at the workplace
  • put together a Code of Conduct
  • invite your team to contribute to creating your PS policies
  • reward examples of best practices
  • talk about this topic with other people and help it grow around you and your team
  • work with a neutral third party to measure the safety your team is experiencing and help to raise the bar across the organization. This is when you’ll truly know where you stand.

All of this is work and deliberate action that not only ensures that we become part of healthier environments, but it’s also a significant way for leaders to help bring more healing to the world–and yes, this is part of our jobs, too.