How to measure and grow Psychological Safety in teams

In their quest to find out what makes a high performing team, Google’s project Aristotle found that psychological safety is paramount. But how to measure and grow psychological safety in your teams? Here are some quick and practical tips. I found it’s actually much less complex than it sounds.

Quick recap – What is Psychological Safety

Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson’s translation:
“Psychological Safely represents the extent to which the team views the social climate as conducive to interpersonal risk; it is a measure of people’s willingness to trust others not to attempt to gain personal advantage at their expense.” [edmondson, 1999]

Eva’s translation in simpler words:
Team members experience this when they feel they can comfortably say and express themselves about what they think and feel, without having to be afraid to be rejected by the team.

For example:
I share my experience with a team member of having failed with a piece of work. In a psychologically unsafe environment, team members respond with judgement and negativity. In other words: I only share my failure once, and will from then on cover up my mistakes. The information flow directly stops: you will never get to hear my real stories anymore.
(it actually gives me stomach aches having to think about the many teams I’ve seen in this lock, also the reason for me writing this article).

In a psychologically safe environment, team members respond supportive, and point out the learning, and don’t hold any judgements against me. It entices me to keep share everything with my team, knowing I won’t have to put my guard up. Resulting in more real conversations, personal growth and a more honest inspection and adaption of our processes and products.

Step 1 – Measure

This one’s super easy and anyone can do it. As there’s a very simple way to measure psychological safety in teams with just six questions:

  1. When someone makes a mistake in our team, it is often held against him or her.
  2. It is easy to discuss difficult issues and problems in this team.
  3. People are sometimes rejected for being different in this team.
  4. It is completely safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. Members of this team value and respect each other’s contributions.

Get your team(s) to answer them on a scale of 1 to 5 (from ‘strongly disagree’, ‘disagree’, ‘neutral, ‘agree’ to ‘strongly agree’).

I recommend doing an initial measurement to set a baseline, and to repeat the questionnaire every once in a while, e.g., once every 4-6 months, so that you can keep an eye on progress.

Step 2 – Analyze the data and take action

If you’re a leader or a change agent (be it formal or informal), please be aware that in your role, your actions, verbal and non-verbal communication are essential to grow and foster psychological safety in teams. Thus, you have so much impact on building high performing teams! It’s really the leaders who set the example their team members follow.

Google created a brilliant action list of 28 things you can do to grow psychological safety.
Though, for the time-poor: I’ve picked a top 5 of actions based on the most common anti-patterns I commonly see leaders miss out on:

  1. Be present and focus on the conversation (e.g. close your laptop during meetings).

    => Eva’s tip:
    consider practicing mindfulness
     to stay in the present and improve focus. Or a really simple thing I do when in a work situation: find a quiet space (yes, the bathroom also works 🙂 ) sit down and close your eyes. Now take a few deep belly breaths. I love this easy to remember ‘Take 5’-technique: count to 5 breath in, hold, breath out count to five. Repeat five times).
  2. Recap what’s been said to confirm mutual understanding/alignment
    (e.g., “What I heard you say is…”); then acknowledge areas of agreement, disagreement, and be open to questions within the group.

    => Eva’s tip:
    consider practicing active listening-, and empathy-skills. Are you listening to truly understand or to reply?
  3. Express gratitude for contributions from the team.

    => Eva’s tip:
    a fun and simple way are
    Kudo Cards
    (scroll all the way down for a free download)
  4. Don’t interrupt or allow interruptions (e.g., step in when someone is interrupted and ensure their idea is heard).

    => Eva’s tip:
    see nr. 2: active listening skills.
  5. Model vulnerability; share your personal perspective on work and failures with your teammates.

    =>Eva’s tip:
    consider reading up on the
    importance of vulnerability particularly in your role. Or watch Brené Brown’s documentary on Netflix, or her TED talk.

I hope you find this article short, practical, and inspiring to dig a little deeper into the subject. Do you have any suggestions, feedback or ideas? Please do get in touch!

One Comment Add yours

  1. laurensbonnema says:

    Great read Eva, thanks for posting this. I love that you make it simple to get started with this and add your own take and spin on it at every step!

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