Ever since Google released the Project Aristotle research on key ingredients of high performing teams, psychological safety has emerged as a golden child in the field of team development. Defined as a shared belief among teams that it is safe to speak up and take risks without fear of reprisal, psychological safety encourages the free exchange of ideas, creative risk-taking and enhanced problem-solving. It unlocks team performance and innovation.
To get the best out of teams, the modern leader must nurture psychological safety. Yet, the contemporary organizational environment of constant change seems to actively work against it. This is because psychological safety is highly contextual. It’s about how you feel in different situations and group settings. For example, you may have high levels of trust with colleagues Adina and Akash, but when the three of you present to the board, you may feel less psychologically safe to speak.
Previously, leaders could cultivate psychologically safe environments over time, but as the world of work and organizations evolve to be more agile, teams no longer have this luxury. Team members are working in short sprints on complex problems, often in cross-functional teams of relative strangers – gig workers, external stakeholders, and those from different departments and locations. Where once practice made perfect, teams are now striving to build psychological safety in short time periods and high pressure environments. Then, once established, people must start from scratch with the next project team.
How can teams develop psychological safety when there is a high level of urgency and little room for practice?
The following are five tested safety tools you can use to support teams and rapidly develop psychological safety:
Tool 1: The Glue
When time gallops, pressure mounts and deadlines loom, it can be tempting to jump straight to task, forgetting the human beings you’re interacting with. If people do not take the opportunity to understand and value where others are coming from, destructive forms of conflict emerge. Team members gear up for a fight or tune out, feeling disengaged and unsafe.
Teaming is a social process. Multiple perspectives and diverse viewpoints can contribute to better problem-solving and faster innovation, but it’s not enough to have diversity. People need a sense of belonging and acceptance to create the social glue. When bringing cross-functional teams together, start by connecting at a human level. This isn’t about small talk; it’s about purposefully and positively connecting to form high-quality bonds.
To apply “the glue,” ask team members to share a photo from their phone that represents who they are and describe how it relates to their values. Take the time to share stories and explore. Encourage people to ask one curious question or make one connecting comment for at least three team members.
Tool 2: The Frame
Human beings love certainty. When we find ourselves in ambiguity, it’s natural to feel a level of discomfort or fear. Framing is a device that eliminates fear from an uncertain landscape. From the outset, framing creates a shared lens for all team members to work through: a lens of learning and collaboration.
As your team forms, make your frame explicit. You might humbly acknowledge the interdependence of the team. There will be tension and there will be failure, and this is good because teams learn from it. It’s how people collaborate and help each other move forward that matters. The goal is to meaningfully evolve in real time, not get a perfect solution. As new teams come together, acknowledge that you are learning about each other, so the expectation is to stretch your thinking, assume positive intent and stay curious about everyone’s perspectives.
Framing is linked to the idea of permission. In the words of Brene Brown, “Sometimes there are things that get in the way of being courageous or vulnerable. In those times, it can help to give ourselves permission to act or feel a certain way.”
Framing gives team members upfront permission to have a voice, take risks, make mistakes and even fail.
One framing activity is to split the team into small groups, each with a set of 12 to 24 printed images. Groups are to come up with as many different meanings as possible in two-minutes by combining different images. For example, a picture of a rock and a picture of a jail cell could be combined to create the saying, “between a rock and a hard place.” Cards can be reused multiple times. After the game, debrief this as a metaphor for the work to be undertaken. There are no wrong answers. It’s about creative exploration and participation to solve the challenges at hand.
Tool 3: The Play Button
When thinking about psychological safety, it’s common to think about the brain, rather than the body. Yet, the body produces two key hormones involved in establishing psychological safety.
The first is serotonin. Serotonin is closely linked to cognitive functioning, regulation of cognitive biases, social affiliation, fairness and mood – all important to innovating and problem-solving. Exercise is one good way to boost serotonin levels. The second is oxytocin, which improves social skills and bonding, trust, positive recollection of memories, well-being, and stress reduction. Laughter is one great way to release oxytocin.
Play combines both laughter and exercise. Not only does it boost oxytocin and serotonin levels, it fast-tracks psychological safety by fostering creative mindsets, enhancing social connection and silencing your inner critic leading to enhanced vulnerability.
There are plenty of ways to play. In cross-cultural teams, a fun way to get the team moving and laughing is the laugh game. Ask everyone to write down how they would convey laughter over text message. You will be surprised at how diverse this is – from the French “mdr” to Thai “5555.” Assign everyone a laugh. Then get them to pair up and try to pronounce the laugh they’ve been assigned, changing to a new partner every 10 seconds. Watch as hilarity ensues. This has the added bonus of helping people suspend judgement and fail fast for enhanced teaming.
Tool 4: The Friction Feeder
The strength of a cross-disciplinary team is in the collision of ideas: the creative tension that occurs when differences in perspective ostensibly oppose each other. Done well, this enables new ideas to be unleashed. Done poorly, it fragments the team as people defend their ideas and resist other viewpoints. The trick is to create enough friction so that people don’t slide back into comfortable habits, but stay open to possibility and explore potential solutions.
In his book, “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety,” Dr. Timothy R. Clark explores the crucial role of the modern leader in increasing intellectual friction while decreasing social friction. Intellectual friction is testing ideas to ensure that the result is the best it can be; social friction is the office politics and positioning that creates unnecessary roadblocks. Decreasing social friction strengthens relationships in the team, maximizing results through the mature acceptance of dissent.
To optimize intellectual and social friction levels, leaders should be highly present and hold space for individuals to share perspectives, learn, understand and appreciate each other. This involves being highly attuned to the team’s energy, paradoxes, dissonances and tensions occurring, and then surfacing them for the group to deal with consciously.
When the process starts to feel uncomfortable:
- Acknowledge the tension and name any dysfunctional behaviors.
- Normalize productive discomfort – reinforce that this is an important part of the creative process.
- Listen to responses – both what is being said and what is left unsaid.
- Get curious – ask people about their experience in the moment.
- Summarize and synthesize what is important to move forward.
- Ask the group where they would like to go next.
Tool 5: The Devil’s Advocate
Another way to increase creative tension and destigmatize dissent is to physically assign it. Choose one or two individuals who would not necessarily speak up of their own volition and make them the devil’s advocate. Give them not only permission but an imperative to voice issues and concerns not already uncovered by the group.
Assigned dissent allows groups to explore conflict without it devolving into personal or emotional conflict. It creates an atmosphere of inquiry where bravery is valued, and the poking, prodding and taking apart of ideas is all part of creative process.
There is another way to play the devil’s advocate: When conflict or two solutions arise, invite the opposing parties to argue the case for the “other side.” This means each must truly explore and understand the perspective of the other, rather than just defending their own.
Like all good things, psychological safety doesn’t happen overnight. However, by using these safety tools, you can fast-track it, and with a bit of luck and enhanced team problem-solving, you’ll stumble upon a few solutions of your own.