Engagement

How to succeed with your team through psychological safety.

Learn what psychological safety is, why it is important to team performance, and get 3 concrete tools to create psychological safety.
Louise Ohm
10 min.

Table of contents

Leaders face a historically challenging time. Pandemics, constant competition for talent, the so-called 'great resignation’, increased digitalization, you name it. At the same time, getting companionship from your employees and motivating them is more important than ever. How do you, as a manager, do that at this time?

According to an article from Børsen, 9 out of 10 Danish managers answer that they try to cope with this through trust-based management. Psychological safety is also a concept that we increasingly see emerging as essential to succeed as a team. According to an article by Accenture, psychological safety at work is associated with 50% more productivity, 57% greater probability of collaboration, and 74% less stress. This makes me wonder; is psychological safety really what is needed to succeed in this time, rather than trust? And what exactly is the difference between the two?

In this blog post, I will try to explain what psychological safety is and why vulnerability based trust is a key term in the matter. I will zoom in on a case from Danske Bank to finally give you 3 essential tools to succeed in your organization or team through psychological safety.

What is psychological safety?

Before I give you some more concrete steps on how to increase psychological safety in your team, it is essential to understand what psychological safety is and why it is important.

With a quick google search for “psychological safety”, you will find the following definition from Center for Creative Leadership: “Psychological safety is the belief that you won't be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

While this is a great definition, it lacks some nuances to what psychological safety is, which is why we will now unfold the term “psychological safety” a little further, starting with a perspective from the Danish best-selling author on leadership, Christian Ørsted.

According to Ørsted, most Danish managers assume that the informal and non-hierarchical Danish management leads to greater openness and honesty in our organizations than in other cultures and that psychological safety is thus already present and not something we need to spend time working on.

The problem here, according to Ørsted, is that most managers confuse psychological safety with friendly, appreciative, and trust-based leadership. Furthermore, Ørsted points out that when you as a manager show trust in your employees, it does not mean that there is psychological safety in your team.

What is the difference, then, between trust and psychological safety?

Writer and speaker within business management, Patrick Lencioni, points out that some equate psychological safety with trust. The difference is that a distinction is made between two forms of trust that leaders can develop with teams, respectively predictive trust and vulnerability based trust. The former concerns the trust that my employees or colleagues carry out their work tasks and keep what they promise. Whereas the latter is about the ability to speak openly and honestly and express one's opinion. Vulnerability based trust can thus be equated with psychological safety. Lencioni points out that it is this kind of trust that is important when working with teams (Lencioni, 2015).

The five dysfunctions of a team model.
Lencioni, 2015

When Christian Ørsted claims that you do not necessarily have psychological safety in your team just because you, as a manager, show trust in your employees, it can therefore be assumed that he is referring to predictive trust. It may therefore be worthwhile as a manager to ask yourself which of the two forms of trust is dominant in your team, if any.

Mutual accountability as the link between vulnerability based trust and performance.

In order to explain how vulnerability based trust is connected with performance, it is relevant to take a closer look at mutual accountability, which is the ability to hold each other accountable in the team.

In his book 'The Five Dysfunctions of a Team', Lencioni highlights 5 reasons why teams do not perform. The most basic of these is a lack of vulnerability based trust (Lencioni, 2015).

According to Stefan Sander, People & Culture Partner at MobilePay, this makes perfect sense: "If we can't speak openly and honestly and dare to be vulnerable, then we don't dare to conflict either. It is really important that we dare to disagree and have productive debates about what is not working.” 

Stefan also explains why this is important: "If I, as your employee, do not dare to state that I disagree with you about a decision, then I will have unresolved dissatisfaction about the decisions you, as a manager, make. And I will be far less committed and less willing to go to great lengths so that we can reach the goal. As soon as we have a shared commitment, we can start holding each other accountable.”

Exactly the ability to hold each other accountable (mutual accountability), explains Stefan Sander, based on Bruce W. Tuckman's model for team development, is the key to the team being able to reach a stage where they perform and create results.

The tuckman model
(Tuckman, 1965)

The Tuckman model  illustrates how the team goes through different stages. According to Tuckman, each stage needs to be successfully navigated in order to reach effective group functioning.

Forming:

When a team is put together, they are in the 'Forming' phase. In this phase, the team members get to know each other, and they are typically afraid of stepping on each other's toes and want to make a good impression on the new relationships. Performance is, therefore, typically quite high at this stage. 

Storming:

After a few months, the team reaches the 'Storming' phase, where they discover each other's differences and thereby begin to notice the things about the other team members that annoy them. Many teams never make it past this stage because they don't have the confidence to put into words the things that aren't working.

Norming:

In order to move on to the next phase, namely the 'Norming' phase, the team begins to form a very clear set of norms and ground rules. That is to say, a social contract with some very concrete guidelines for what is appropriate behavior and what is not. An example of this could be that you must notify the meeting facilitator if you are late for a meeting. These ground rules are important to cooperate and hold each other accountable, which determines whether a team moves into the 'Performing' phase.

Performing:

Here the team members comply with their ground rules, fulfill their potential and reach their goals.

It all comes down to psychological safety.

From the above, it is clear: It all comes down to psychological safety. Because you cannot hold each other responsible (mutually accountable) if there is not the psychological safety necessary to put into words the things that do not work. Therefore, it must be assumed that the key to high-performing teams is psychological safety.

The problem, according to Stefan Sander, is that performance is most often measured by how much the employees deliver, how many sales they have made, and how much money they earn for the company. This results in types with certain behavioral traits being made into role models, even though they may actually be toxic to the culture and level of psychological safety because they only care about their own goals and interests. Thus, trustworthiness is far more important for a team's success than how the individual employees perform according to various KPIs or other performance measures. At least if you want a team that corporates and pulls together rather than individual performers.

"If we create a culture, where we are too proud and shy of conflict to be able to tell our manager and colleagues when a death has occurred in the family, when we haven't slept all night, or when we feel pressured, then there will be far more people who reach a point where they are burned out. And there will most likely be far more long-term sick leave.” - Stefan Sander

A part of team Zoios, trying our newly developed psychological safety team exercise on workcation in Spain. Get the guide to the exercise here and try it with your team.

Better teams make more mistakes?

In addition to holding each other mutually accountable as an essential part of team performance, it turns out that another important consequence of psychological safety, which is important for success in teams, is that we learn from our mistakes and innovate better.

Professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, Amy Edmondson, associates the companies that have psychological safety with those where the employees are willing to take the interpersonal risks associated with learning.

Edmondson has been investigating psychological safety for several years. In connection with a research project that aimed to investigate whether better hospital teams make fewer medication errors, it turned out to her surprise that better teams made more errors. Examining the results further, Edmondson found that it was largely a matter of some teams being better at reporting and discussing their mistakes in the teams than others. She found a correlation between teams with greater openness/honesty and more reported errors (TedTalk Amy Edmondson).

In continuation of this, we must assume that in a team with enough psychological safety for us to admit mistakes, give each other feedback, and thus learn and develop, we innovate and perform better. 

We also cannot be blind to the fact that we live in a knowledge society, where tacit knowledge (knowledge that exists with employees but is not said out loud or written down) is extremely important for organizations. If there is no psychological safety for us to talk about mistakes and insecurities and give each other open and honest feedback, I would venture to say that this tacit knowledge disappears as drastically as all your employees quit.

What is performance really about? - High-performance teams in Danske Bank

To get one step closer to the three tools for creating psychological safety at work, let's take a look at a case from Danske Bank.

In an interview with Stefan Sander, he explains how he, during his time at Danske Bank, helped carry out a study to find out what makes teams perform well.

Based on the analysis as well as additional external studies and theory about team performance, Stefan and his colleagues found that there are 8 things that characterize a high-performing team:

One of these 8 principles, "Healthy team culture", is largely about psychological safety and is, according to Stefan, the most important factor in team performance.

At Danske Bank, they developed a survey with around 70 questions related to the 8 principles, which they sent out to teams in the organization. The aim was to clarify what the respective teams were good at and what they had to work on. Based on the answers, they could see how the different teams perceived themselves with regard to the 8 parameters.

Based on that data, Stefan and his colleagues facilitated a series of team sessions where they worked with the 8 factors. In the sessions, they made a great effort to create a safe space where the employees could open up and talk about some more difficult things that they would otherwise not be able to discuss. Stefan talks about a team that, before the session, had scored high on all parameters. Three months after the first team session, they answered the survey again to measure the progression of their development. Here it turned out that the team scored lower on all parameters than in the first survey before the team session. At first glance, one would think that their performance was worse. But Stefan and his colleagues found that the psychological safety of the team had increased. The reason why they scored lower was that they were more open and honest about their challenges. Based on this, Stefan expresses: "We stopped looking at high-performing teams as a number we could put on them because we found that the value in creating good teams arose in the dialogue and self-awareness about the difficult things.".

Half a year after they had been through a course of team sessions, the respective teams were asked if the sessions had a positive effect on their behavior in the team and on their effectiveness. It turned out that 67% of the 6000 people who participated in the sessions answered “yes” to this question. As for the remaining 33%, the majority were found to have switched teams during the period in question, which indicated how important it is to have stable teams. Otherwise teams would only start off in the ‘forming phase’ to get disrupted in the ‘storming phase’ - just to start all over again. Thus, the instability of someone leaving the team, or a new member joining, has a huge negative impact on team- and organizational performance.

Therefore, Stefan believes that if you want to increase psychological safety, it is a good idea to collect some data on teams and have some skilled facilitators who dare to ask good and uneasy questions. In addition, Stefan points out that the facilitators for these team conversations do not necessarily have to have anything to do with the team. As a matter of fact, it is better to have a facilitator who does not know the team very well, as they have no asset in deliveries and thus remain unbiased - which make them able to ask the curious and difficult questions. The obvious solution would be to let an HR person or a colleague from another department facilitate these sessions.

In addition to Stefan's good advice, below you will find some suggestions on how you can improve psychological safety in your team.

How to create psychological safety - the 3 tools you have been waiting for.

If you want your team to succeed and create results, you must start by looking at how you define success. If there is a tendency in your team, or the company in general, to evaluate performance based on output measurements, I hope that after reading the above, you know that the focus must necessarily be put elsewhere. As a starting point for improving psychological safety, it can be advantageous to measure it in your company or your team.

It would be completely wrong to look at data and numbers regarding team performance in isolation. But data and numbers are insanely good at getting an indication of where there are challenges, and the data can be used to ask some good questions.” - Stefan Sander

Regardless of whether you measure psychological safety or not, I have tried to boil down the most important 3 pieces of advice to increase psychological safety:

3 step team exercise to psychological safety.

This guide provides you with 3 must ask questions that will help improve psychological safety in your team or department.

Try the exercise now

#1 Set the scene

One piece of advice from Amy Edmondson to work with psychological safety is to “Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem” (TedTalk). This involves communicating that it's okay to make mistakes and share them when we do; frankly, we learn and grow more by doing this. Further, this step involves encouraging the employees to share insecurities and worries.

Also, ensure that you create the framework for the employees to get to know each other and become comfortable with each other on a more personal level. This can be, for example, through various team-building activities, walks & talks, joint physical activities, social events, or small social traditions in the team. Another very effective way of doing this is by actively working with Personality and Behavioral Preferences Profiles. 

This creates a starting point from which employees can build relationships. According to Stefan Sander, intimacy and these relationships at work determine whether there is psychological safety; "If we can talk about personal challenges with each other, then it is much easier to talk about work challenges, as the latter is far less sensitive."

#2 Acknowledge your own fallibility

In addition to consistently communicating that it is okay to make mistakes and put into words what is difficult, it is particularly important as a leader also to show it. This can be done by taking the lead and being transparent about the challenges and uncertainties we face as a company and what is specifically challenging for you as a manager.

If you as a manager dare to show vulnerability, both personally and professionally, you can be sure that it will have a positive impact on your employees’ openness. As a manager, you have a lot of influence on the psychological safety within your team, but it takes an extreme amount of courage to take the lead.” - Stefan Sander

#3 Ask a lot of questions

Ask your employees for feedback and let them experience that you value their voice and take it seriously. You can do this by responding curiously and with interest when they provide input and knowing that you act on their input or letting them know why if you don't. Show that you support them in the challenges, questions, and ideas they may have. This will support your employees in the future to express their perspectives again and again without the fear of being judged.

In addition, make sure that, in a safe space, questions are also asked about things that may be difficult to articulate. This can, for example, be through team sessions, as mentioned in the example with Danske Bank. 

It's not rocket science. It's very basic, actually. But it’s something that is neglected in the very hardcore business world. (...) In reality, it requires something quite low-practical, like an exercise where you sit in a room and ask some questions. And stop splitting the employees’ identity into a professional one and a personal one. They are more or less fluent. Some people will disagree with this, but as a fact there will only be one Stefan in the coffin when I leave Planet Earth eventually. Not HR Stefan, Father Stefan, Friend Stefan - just one Stefan." - Stefan Sander

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