Leadership and Psychological Safety

Last Updated: Oct 28, 2020 | Executive Coaching, Team Performance

By Tom Henschel, Executive Coach/Facilitator. Roger was stepping into a much larger role as his coaching began. His new team would be more senior than any he’d led before. “I’ve heard about ‘psychological safety,’” he told me. “Is that something I could bring to the team?”

“You could, yes,” I said. “Leaders can do two thing to help foster psychological safety in their teams. Can I tell you about them?” He said sure. 

I began by telling him about Amy Edmondson.

Amy Edmondson is now a professor at Harvard Business School. As a young researcher, she wanted to discover what magic quality allowed certain teams to become high performing.

She observed teams in hospitals, where high performance can be measured many ways. She chose to measure how many errors teams made when administering medications. What she found was that otherwise high performing teams made more medicating errors than lesser performing teams. 

This was a head scratcher.

As she dug deeper, she found something quite different. The higher performing teams were not making more mistakes, they were just talking more about them.

Not only did the high performing teams admit their mistakes, they discussed them openly together, from the highest to the lowest rank. No one was punished for or embarrassed by their mistakes. As she observed team members speaking so freely, she thought it looked like a very safe place to work. And she coined the phrase ‘psychological safety.’ 

Over time, she dissected the various elements of psychological safety. She noticed leaders of teams high in psychological safety shared two behaviors. 

First, they invited feedback. They asked people who reported to them, “What did you think of that?” They did not debate people’s ideas. They didn’t teach or lecture. They allowed their people to speak. They would listen to learn. Others were expected to do the same. The team, following the leader’s example, would all listen to learn.

That ability – to create meaningful conversation – was a crucial part of safety and of high performance.

Second, leaders admitted their own mistakes. They treated their mistakes without shame or blame. Mistakes became data for everyone to learn from. Normalizing mistakes in this way allowed everyone to admit their own mistakes. In a lovely piece of symmetry, in order for the admitted mistakes to be examined and turned into successes, skill number one – inviting feedback – was required. Circular!

Roger worked on both inviting feedback and on admitting his own mistakes. He admitted later that, upon first hearing, he’d thought both those skills to be rather simple. To his surprise and delight, he found each of them quite challenging. A large part of our coaching conversations focused on helping him develop those two skills. I’m happy to report that Roger’s team appears very healthy indeed! For more about team performance, read select Arden Coaching blogs.

To learn more about about developing psychological safety and building high-performing teams, schedule a consultation with Tom.

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