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Psychological Safety

Google’s Project Aristotle represented a deep investigation into the anatomy of high performing teams, spanning a decade and investigating 180 teams with 35 statistical models, double-blind interviews and more. The results? Google discovered that team composition is less important than how a team interacts, structures its work and views contributions. Above all, they discovered that the single most important factor for high performing teams was Psychological Safety.  Psychological Safety refers to a team member’s perceived level of safety to take risks, be vulnerable,  make mistakes, and is reflected in their ability to express questions, ideas and concerns. PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY PLUS DRIVE = RESULTS. While the term has been referenced for decades, Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School has been a leading researcher and champion of Psychological Safety.  Much of her and others research has linked Psychological Safety to improved innovation, continuous learning, and employee morale, engagement and retention. However, Edmondson makes the point that to achieve these and other benefits, Psychological Safety must be combined with a commitment to excellence and ambition to reach meaningful goals.  THE OPPOSITE OF PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY. Psychological Safety is ultimately related to whether team members feel accepted and supported in their work. It gives people permission to experiment, be vulnerable, and speak with candour. Teams that do not display Psychological Safety tend to be rife with blame, recriminations and low morale. Beyond just lacking innovation, individuals and teams in such a toxic environment will fail to provide their leadership with crucial feedback loops that would normally shed light on what's working and what's not. The result is a disconnection from reality that can have devastating implications — see the In Practice section below for the cautionary tales of NASA and Wells Fargo.  NOT ABOUT BEING 'NICE' AND ALWAYS AGREEING.  Psychologically Safe teams will disagree, argue and raise difficult conversations. However, this is built on a culture of respect and openness where team members demonstrate humility, seek to understand alternative views, and are able to change their minds without fear of repercussion or 'looking bad'.  LEADING PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY.  Leaders, in all their forms and levels, play a crucial role in either developing or inhibiting Psychological Safety. In particular, Edmondson advocates leaders to actively:  Set the stage: frame the work expectations and purpose but also acknowledge uncertainty in the terrain. This is about defining a problem space that teams and organisations must explore and collaborate to succeed.  Invite participation: this involves providing the systems, space and specific questions to actively encourage participation.  Respond productively: this includes expressing appreciation for input, destigmatising failure and punishing boundary violations. Baked into all of the above is the importance of welcoming and modelling fallibility, including using terms such as "I don't know"; "I need help"; "I made a mistake"; and even "I'm sorry." MEASURING PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY.  Edmondson has partnered to produce the Fearless Organisation website (see links in Origins section below), which provides a Psychological Safety assessment that explores four measurable dimensions: Attitude to risk and failure: including the degree, it’s permissible to make mistakes.  Open conversation: the degree that difficult conversations can be discussed.  Willingness to help: the degree to which people support and help one another. Inclusivity and diversity: the degree to which diversity is embraced. IN YOUR LATTICEWORK.  The centrality of Psychological Safety can be understood in light of Loss Aversion and Hyperbolic Discounting. Specifically, the calculation of whether or not to speak up about something you are unsure about balances the risk of an immediate personal loss of reputation and standing, versus a potential distant benefit for others. Psychological Safety is a fundamental model related to building high-performing teams, so relates strongly to 5 Stages of Teaming and T-Shaped People. The NASA example in the In Practice example below used the 5 Whys as part of root cause analysis to uncover a psychologically unsafe environment. View Psychological Safety in the context of the SCARF Model, which explores key 'limbic' drivers for behaviour. And Nonviolent Communication to complement Psychological Safety in seeking win-win solutions through conflict situations. You might also consider how Psychological Safety is an underlying requirement in Radical Candor and building trust with the Trust Equation. 

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