Applying and Measuring Psychological Safety

By July 13, 2020 AgileBusiness, Teams

When the environment is highly unpredictable teams need to adapt and move fast to survive and thrive and enabling the right communication norms and team culture is critical in supporting the kind of collaboration culture that generates high performance, adaptiveness and high energy. You can’t move fast when you have a toxic work culture characterised by fixed mindsets and internal politics. These things are important. Now more than ever.

So what are the norms that distinguish high performing teams? Google have long been renowned for their research in this area, conducting comprehensive multi-year studies across hundreds of teams and aligning these with academic research to show that the kind of factors that we might expect to contribute significantly to high team performance are unexpected. Instead of team longevity, background, personality or team member skills, a study that considered more than 250 attributes of over 180 active Google teams demonstrated that there were five key dynamics that characterised high performance

  1. Psychological safety: The ability to say what we really mean, and take risks in the team environment without feeling insecure
  2. Dependability: Being able to rely on other team members to do high quality work on time
  3. Structure & clarity: Ensuring that goals, execution plans and roles of individual team members are clear
  4. Meaning of work: The work that is being done is personally important
  5. Impact of work: The feeling that the work being done actually matters

Psychological safety in particular, is seen as a powerful concept in supporting team performance, and one that I hear and use often in my work with clients. Professor Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School has defined psychological safety as ‘…a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’.

Analyst Ben Thompson has described a culture of true collaboration as being one that is able to combine mutual trust and respect and comfort with dissent which is a good way of thinking about what psychological safety means in practice.

These factors are critical to teams that can learn well, move fast and adapt well. With all the focus on skills and team composition, we don’t pay nearly enough attention to how the team communicates and acts and so creating the kind of environment that enables trust, exploration, equality of participation and healthy conversations is essential.

So how is it possible to measure psychological safety? As Richard McLean describes, a good place to start is to regularly ask the team 7 simple questions based on those that Amy Edmondson used in her original study, and rate how strongly they agree or disagree with these statements:

  1. If I make a mistake in this team, it is held against me.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk in this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

A simple survey using a 1–5 scale of strongly disagree through to strongly agree creates a practical way for teams to monitor their levels of psychological safety and take action to mitigate specific problems.

For more like this, you can order your copy of Building the Agile Business Through Digital Transformation and the new book from Neil Perkin, Agile Transformation: Structures, Processes and Mindsets for the Digital Age. You can also join our community to access exclusive content related to the book

Photo by Matthew Waring on Unsplash

Neil Perkin

Author Neil Perkin

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