Take risks or stay safe? On paper, they’re opposites. But on a productive, high-performing team, the two concepts have to coexist.
Productivity and high-performance exist together in a sweet spot that has a name: psychological safety. Here are five ways to boost productivity with psychological safety.
Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson defines psychological safety as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” With psychological safety, it means that team members can share their honest opinions about projects, express ideas that push the envelope, and be vulnerable with one another without the fear of being punished for doing so.
When Google’s Project Aristotle set out to discover what makes a “perfect” team, it was psychological safety they identified as the key ingredient. Psychological safety prevailed over personality alignment, technical skills, experience, and more.
The challenge, of course, is cultivating psychological safety. The reason is that while risk-taking is essential to success, humans tend to be risk-averse by nature. To overcome that tendency and create psychological safety:
1. Don’t Be a Perfectionist.
At work and in life, there’s no such thing as “perfect.” That’s why perfectionism holds teams back from their full potential: Perfectionism makes team members feel that nothing can be done right. It stifles creativity, creates animosity, and fosters an atmosphere that works against psychological safety.
Instead of expecting perfection, acknowledge that no project can ever indeed be perfect. Embrace the process that it takes to accomplish tasks rather than emphasizing the product. Be open to getting feedback from your team, as well as giving constructive feedback.
Perfectionism makes accomplishments that should be celebrated seem like failures. Don’t let it stop you from seeing all the good things about a project or deliverable.
2. Respect Your Team.
Never underestimate the importance of respect. When your team feels that you respect them, they feel freer to express themselves and contribute to projects.
Workplace hierarchies lead some people higher on the ladder to treat those beneath them poorly. Not only does that work against psychological safety, but it also encourages defensive behaviors — and in an environment like that, retaliation is right around the corner.
To practice respect, approach the people you work with as humans just like you. Remind your team members that you’re all working toward the same goal. Grudges and snide remarks make it that much harder to achieve it.
3. Be Empathetic.
Psychologists define empathy as “the visceral experience of another person’s thoughts and feelings from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own.” In another Calendar article, Deanna Richie cites empathy as the most critical leadership skill, given that it’s how leaders understand the experiences of their employees.
When someone on your team puts themselves in a vulnerable place or shares something personal, be empathetic. Rather than trying to fix problems immediately, allow people to express their emotions without judgment. Make them feel heard and validated.
In the quest for psychological safety, empathy enables you to give your team members the benefit of the doubt. In return, you’ll receive that same benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong. Don’t jump to negative conclusions, and understand that the vast majority of people have good intentions.
4. Demonstrate Emotional Intelligence.
Beyond empathy, you need to demonstrate a high level of emotional intelligence as a leader. Emotional intelligence is your ability to discern your own emotions and manage them as well as the ability to read the emotions of others and respond appropriately.
Emotional intelligence is challenging to master, and some people think that you either have it, or you don’t. The truth, though, is that emotional intelligence can be developed.
Be mindful of others around you. Read fiction. Have deep conversations with people you care about, and listen at least as much as you speak.
5. Pass it on.
You can’t create a psychologically safe team alone, much as you might like to. Building one takes a concerted effort from everyone involved.
Take the lead. Help others understand what psychological safety is and how to build it. Talk as a team about what behaviors or attitudes get in the way of psychological safety — and put together a plan to change them.
Start with surveys, which are non-confrontational and can open the discussion. Review the results together and give everyone a chance to speak without interruption. Remember to practice respect and empathy.
Psychological safety may seem like a long way away, but it’s achievable by every team. Be kind to each other, and you’ll get there sooner than you think.