Is Your Workplace Psychologically Safe?

Human bonds matter at work just as much as elsewhere. But how can you really connect with the people you work with? And how can you prepare the ground for great teamwork?

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Self-confidence is good, team confidence even better

With the rise of the collaboration era and the ascent of remote working as a common practice, team performance has become the core of the workforce. Surely, individual performance is still important, but it loses relevance if it doesn’t drive the team to overcome milestones and innovate faster. After all, team performance is a game of give-and-take. Individuals need to be generous enough to share their personal values and contributions, whereas the team needs to be willing enough to see each contribution as an opportunity for growth. It doesn’t sound so difficult, except generosity, empathy and willingness cannot be imposed. They can only be encouraged and nourished through good communication.

While skimming and scanning other people’ solutions for good team communication, I came across an interesting concept: “psychological safety at work.” The term is attributed to Amy C. Edmondson, a Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, who describes it as ”a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.” Edmondson puts the concept into context further explaining that, when team members are motivated at work and want to share an idea for improving performance, they frequently do not speak up because they fear that they will be harshly judged.

As an introvert and as a team member myself, I wanted to see to what extent building a psychologically safe environment can improve team communication and inherently team performance. Here’s what I found.

Communication really is work

According to a study published in Harvard Business Review, “more than three quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues.” I can’t say this conclusion has taken me by surprise as I can already see this happening in my job. Yet, it did get me pondering about something else: if we spend so much of our work time communicating with teammates, then:

  • isn’t work more than task completion and goal achieving?
  • doesn’t the way we communicate with our team matter just as much as the actual work we put in to get our job done?

So how do you build and nourish good team communication? Because there’s more to it than using the latest team communication technology. Of course technology gives you the tools to share knowledge fast and keeps you in sync with your team. Yet, as advanced as it might be, technology will not set the right tone, carefully find the right words to say or trigger the appropriate reaction on your behalf. We’re not there yet. So, let’s see what you can personally do to set the premises for good team communication.

Establish connections, grow bonds

Theoretically speaking, hiring a group of stellar professionals should be enough for developing a high-performance team: you gather a team of brilliant experts, you assign them roles and responsibilities, you track and measure their progress, and you’re heading for success, right? In reality, it’s not enough. Because being exquisite in what you do is only part of the job. Being just as good, if not better, alongside your team is the rest of the job.

Individual contributions are just the bricks in the edifice. The way you communicate (about) your work with the team is the cement that holds those bricks together and doesn’t let them fall apart. Good team communication is that binder for which people need to establish authentic connections and grow bonds. So there’s no such as thing as high team performance in the absence of fluent team communication and collaboration.

Recommended reading: While Some Teams Succeed, While So Many Fail Miserably

Take your personality to work

I personally believe that people connect with people, not job titles. Understandably, growing genuine bonds at work requires the same level of authenticity, presence, and acceptance as it does in our personal lives. We can connect with our team when we are confident that:

  • we can share with them the bright side of things, but also the bad and the ugly, the things that frighten us; we are allowed to be/get emotional.
  • we won’t be judged for who we are (hardworking and brilliant, but also afraid, anxious, insecure or angry) and what we think.
  • they care about how we feel and are able to sense it not only from our words, but also from our tone and gestures.

According to a recent Google experiment, to feel “psychologically safe” at work, we should be free enough to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations, we must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy.

Sounds easy, but it’s not. Because reaching that level of interpersonal trust takes time and courage. On the other hand, the need to be accepted and acknowledged in the workplace makes us self-inflict a pressure to look “professional”, i. e. to hide vulnerabilities, to leave fears, outbursts, anxieties, and insecurities at home.

But why should we split our self when we come to work? And why should we put on a “professional” mask, assuming it’s something that everyone wants to see? Masks will only trip and trap communication, making team members waste their time and energy reading between the lines and filling the blanks.

So what should we do then? We should build psychologically safe environments where:

  • you don’t need to put a “work” mask as soon as you step into the office.
  • it’s OK to bring all of your personality (with all the good and the bad in it) to work.
  • you can express yourself, tell (your) stories, and use your own voice.

Why? Because work environments like these minimize self-censorship, harboring good team communication. They enable a genuine focus shift from personal to team performance, empowering individuals to bring in authentic personal value to the benefit of the entire team. A psychologically safe workplace will motivate team members to innovate faster and find better solutions to problems.

Recommended reading: How to Help New Team Members Fit In and Deliver Fast

Speak up, it’s OK

As team members (and not only), when we show ourselves as we are, we are most likely to inspire one another, building a sense of empathy in a non-intrusive way. And good team communication starts with that – empathy.

Encouraging people to express personal stories and feelings at work will do more than create and tighten bonds. It will also increase team productivity. This may seem far-fetched, but it isn’t. Francesca Gino, a Professor at Harvard Business School, has analyzed how fear of rejection affects genuine collaboration and reached the conclusion that “teams who share personal stories are more effective.”

New team members are focused rather on being/feeling accepted than contributing and adding real value to the team; so they tend to repeat information rather than add new information to the discussion. Because repeating information that is already validated helps them appear competent in the eyes of others. – Francesca Gino

From this perspective, the reverse effect actually makes sense. Once you feel comfortable about sharing your personal self with the team because they do it too, it will feel just as natural to pass on what you know, what you’ve worked on, and how you’d solve a work-related problem, without the fear of being rejected or dismissed. The tendency to keep information to yourself to the detriment of the team will diminish, and personal opinions will eventually converge into team knowledge.

In short, building a culture of sharing will inspire teams to speak up. Encouraging people to voice out personal opinions and stories without fearing rejection and criticism will help them feel safe enough to bond with their team, commit to their job, and share their knowledge.

So I’ll leave you with one question: how psychologically safe do you feel around your team?

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