HOW Talent: Safe spaces - creating a culture of psychological safety

LAURA CHAMBERS • 01 Oct 2020

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In this HOW webinar session, Giles was joined by Kate Hargreaves from Mosaic Partners to talk about Psychological Safety - what it is and what it isn’t it. In the current health crisis, looking after our own mental health, our colleagues, our friends and our employees has never been more important.

An introduction to Kate Hargreaves

Kate is MD and Founder of Mosaic Partners, a people development agency based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne specialising in coaching leadership teams to improve culture and behaviour.


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Kate, what is psychological safety and why is it important?

Psychological safety is a phrase first coined by Amy Edmondson, a behavioural scientist at Harvard University.

Essentially, in a psychological safe environment we are safe to show up, express ourselves, have our voice heard and be accepted without judgement and fear that somebody in our team is going to be malicious towards us.

A workplace without psychological safety can lead us to feel stress responses. We know this can result in a lack of creativity, we shut down, we don’t speak up and this is not a great environment to work in to get the best out of people.

We’re facing challenging times and a potential further lockdown. How can we ensure our colleagues feel psychologically safe, especially now we’re not connected with them in a physical sense?

We are experiencing a global pandemic and situations that are new to us all, and as a result, people are really suffering. It's never been more important to create psychological safety within our teams.

Many teams I work with don't have a team charter in place. Team Charters mean being explicit about what the key goals are, the priorities and the deliverables. How do we measure success, what is the shared vision of success, and most importantly what will you agree to as a team in terms of the behaviours to cultivate a psychologically safe environment where we can achieve everything we've set out to.

The team that leads the charter is critical. It is not something that is leader driven; it is the team agreeing what they need between each other to create maximum trust in a psychologically safe environment - what is okay and what is not okay.

What psychological safety is NOT?

Some assume it is where people feel very comfortable and safe with one another but it's actually the opposite. It's having an environment to feel safe in to have difficult conversations, address the tough issues and not be afraid.

Psychological safety is not where people can say what they want and without consequence. It's about agreeing what's acceptable and encourage that behaviour in the team.

As a leader, how do you establish if people in your organisation feel psychologically safe? Is there an assessment process to go through?

Have a conversation about "what is psychological safety?". Help people understand what an unsafe psychological environment looks like.

Then think about increasing psychological safety as a group. What does that look like? What behaviours should we see and demonstrate between ourselves? That will help the team create space for psychological safety.

Mosaic Partners Psychological Safety questions

We can assess a team’s current levels of psychological safety against statements adapted from Amy Edmondson’s (1999) study and Shane Snow’s recent piece in Forbes. With your team, go through these questions and rate them 0 to 10.

Some examples of the questions are:

  • If something is wrong i.e. a problem or tough issue, I can bring it up without it being used against me.
  • If I need help, I can ask for it without being judged in any way.
  • No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts

DOWNLOAD: Psychological Safety - Team Assessment document

Complete your details below to receive a copy of Mosaic Partners' Psychological Safety - Team Assessment document

What do we do with the responses to these questions?

Some of the results might be difficult to look at but that's okay. If the scores on the questionnaire return low, then it’s a good place to start the conversation. Ask why the score is that way and what needs to happen to increase it.

The results should be discussed with the team rather than the leader - let them lead the process. The ultimate question is: 'what do we need to do as a team to make this a more psychologically safe environment and what are we signing up to together?'

At the next stage, we build the Charter - what does that look like?

It’s all about having a dialogue and it’s a unique process to every team. Some may choose to answer the questions individually then come together; and others prefer to go through the process together.

Most teams don't talk about their shared vision of success, goals and deliverables, it is just assumed with teams then working with just a set of assumptions rather than set goals and objectives.

DOWNLOAD: Team Charter Activity and Template

Complete your details below to receive a copy of Mosaic Partners' Team Charter Activity and Template

When the Charter is implemented - what does it look like and how do people respond to it?

It will be something people can sign up to – a simple, one-page document. When it’s implemented well, the team will call each other out and reward each other. Therefore, it's important they sign up to the group charter and decide what they want to do more of, and what do they want to eradicate.

What are the results from people feeling psychologically safe?

There's lots of empirical research that shows us that when teams are feeling psychologically safe, they are more creative, more innovative, they have better relationships and as a result, performance rises.

How can leaders become more comfortable in being “uncomfortable”?

Leaders need to become role models. Be open and honest - when leaders do this, they create a space for other people to do the same.

Can you create a team charters for sub teams working within larger teams and still see the benefits?

Yes, and I would encourage it. Teams should decide what's right for them and perhaps the overarching deliverables are then shared in the broader team. It's not necessarily about the Charter, but more about the conversations you're having to get there.

Can it be implemented within a smaller team initially and create a template that rolls out to the wider organisation?

It is dependent on the organisation and how smaller teams are set up within the team. That's how viral change works; top down isn't always what works best and instead these pockets of good practice can really help.

Do you have examples of success after implementing this process and charters?

Yes, we have seen teams where conflict has been reduced, but with the right kind of conflict increasing. When we see teams challenging each other and having difficult conversations then we know that's a psychologically safe environment. Seeing the right kind of conflict increase is something to be welcomed, as opposed to shied away from.

The organisations with the most challenges in their culture are often those when there is no conflict, and everything looks cosy and harmonious. That can because people do not feel psychologically safe.

With most people working remotely for at least the rest of this year, how can we best support this remotely?

This can all be done remotely, it’s about dedicating and carving out the time, starting the conversation, and continuing that conversation.

Another way is for the team leader acting as the team coach. They can get people together, ask those questions, facilitate the process as opposed to trying to do it all themselves.

We all have our worries and experiences, especially around the pandemic. How can we support our teams while they're working remotely?

It's important to recognise some people are genuinely finding remote working very difficult. Some of our feedback from organisations is that some individuals are not struggling with the job, but quite often it's their whole lives. Everything is amplified and it's about being kind, open and honest. This takes us back to people feeling safe to express vulnerabilities if they're struggling or having a challenge outside of work that may be impacting them inside work.

At Jobtrain, we've fostered an open culture and made it clear that it's okay to not be okay. With so much time spent at work, we see ourselves as a family here, but for larger organisations, that's probably more of a challenge.

This is where leaders need to become role models. An example of a chat I had recently, the person said they felt they needed to be strong for their workforce, but, it’s the opposite. Telling your team you're having a difficult day is a powerful statement; and being open creates an environment where it's okay to have those conversations. If you have good relationships and you create an open culture, then people will come to you and speak up.

An employee assistance program (or referral sheet) that the team is culturally encouraged to do can also be hugely important.

Since Covid took hold, many of us are seeing a blurring of the lines between professional and personal lives. Some might feel uncomfortable that they're exposing themselves on a personal level. Do you think that's right?

We expected to see a lack of connection to people, but we've seen the opposite for most of our clients with team culture improving because of remote work. The flip side is some people are really struggling with remote working, for example with young children at home it can be logistically challenging. Encourage people to speak up if they are struggling and look at how to alleviate some of those struggles. Often the brave face to put on for work just exacerbates the stress.

“Same storm, different boats”

Keep your own boat afloat but think about your colleagues too. How are they, how are their boats, where are the holes in their boats and how could you support them?

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