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Creating psychological safety in teams

I get to work with teams and groups of all shapes and sizes; from dusty mining crews, to cool urbane executive teams and all in between.  You do not need to be with them long to get a sense of how well the members of the team gel. In other words, the level of trust in the group.

Back in 2013, Steve Zuieback wrote an article, Trust: Cause, Effect or Process, building on the work of Jack Gibb. His Trust Cycle shows 6 steps or actions, that if repeated builds trust in teams. These include,

  • Sharing critical information
  • Experiencing openness
  • Experience more trust
  • Commit to common work
  • Learn as you go
  • Create and document results

In addition to these, my colleague Tim Dalmau often talks about “creating safety” in groups. By this he means psychological safety.

Psychological safety means that there is certainty (in terms of behaviors and decisions by those in power) and people feel safe.

Recently I spent time in a meeting with a group of people where there was little trust and psychological safety.

What did I see and hear? What were the signs?

  • No one spoke or gave an opinion until the leader (or one with power) spoke (ie there was little knowledge and certainty of how things get decided)
  • On occasion when the facilitator (not a member of the group) called on someone by name to give an opinion, the person evaded or gave a ‘bland’ response and first glanced towards the person who had the power.
  • I was told afterwards by the leader that a number of statements made by others were wrong (factually incorrect). Interestingly there was no discussion around that during the meeting, leading me to conclude that there is not a lot of on-going interaction or information exchange within the group. Simply, not everyone was on the same page!
  • Each time one particular person in the group spoke the other members of the group averted their gaze and looked down.

Last year I came across a useful article which gives six helpful tips to leaders about practical things that can be done to create psychological safety in teams (or groups).

  1. Set clear expectations of who you are and what you need
  2. Invite team members to challenge you as leader
  3. Focus on collective results
  4. Express the team’s core purpose (why we do what we do)
  5. Model and demand accountability
  6. Model the following behavior
    • be inclusive, understanding
    • show that you care
    • lead with conviction
    • be present to each individual

To these six elements we can add two more: –

  1. Wherever possible, go visual: put the topic, issue or question on a flip chart, whiteboard or slide
  2. Talk to the flip chart, whiteboard or slide and not to each other: i.e. look at the issue on the board not at each other.

I would infer from my experience with the group I met with recently that virtually none of those 8 factors are present in their interaction or generally in the day-to-day business of which that group is part.

In that same article a formula was proposed,

Psychological safety + Meaning + Connection = Trust

So, leaders who create psychological safety, provide meaning and context to all that is done and provide opportunity for on-going connection and interaction with their people and amongst their team members, have much greater chance that the illusive but vital ingredient of high performing teams, TRUST, will be present.

Jill Tideman

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