Psychological Safety - A Tale of Two Teams
What does it take to build trust in an organization and why does it matter? And, how can you understand the levels of trust within teams to strengthen it? Amy Edmondson’s extensive research on psychological safety led to the publication of The Fearless Organization which was followed by the development of The Fearless Organization Scan, a psychological safety assessment to help teams and organizations understand and improve psychological safety on their teams.
Psychological safety matters because high levels of it create a ripe environment for creativity and teamwork. By building trust, understanding, space for curiosity and risk taking, organizations can reach their business goals faster, develop better products more quickly, and establish an innovation-ready learning culture.
Edmondson organizes growth in psychological safety along four dimensions:
Willingness to help: How do teams support each other? Is it okay to ask for help? Will others provide help when asked?
Inclusion & diversity: Who can be their full selves at work? Whose ideas are listened to?
Attitude to risk and failure: What happens when something goes wrong? Is failure a learning opportunity or an embarrassment?
Open conversation: Is it safe to ask questions and raise concerns?
In my early work as a certified practitioner of The Fearless Organization Scan, I have seen the value to teams of taking the brief assessment and then having the conversations about how to move forward. Ongoing check-ins provide accountability and ensure continued psychological safety development.
At a large multinational company, I have used the assessment with several teams. On the surface, two teams who were responsible for designing and developing innovative medical technologies had fairly similar results - within a few points of each other in the top quadrant of the assessment. Looking at the results superficially, one might have handled the team debriefings the same way with a team discussion of results and next steps. However, the teams really were not the same.
On the first team, everyone’s responses were somewhat similar showing a relatively uniform workplace experience and level of psychological safety. This team of scientists and engineers have worked together for a long time and have had consistent leadership. A team-level discussion of how to build greater psychological safety and address opportunities for growth across the four dimensions was appropriate and welcomed on this team. The team also found the debriefing session to be a needed point of reconnection and community-building after a long period of remote work due to the pandemic. Having a meaningful conversation and reflecting on their work as a team fostered greater psychological safety.
On the other team, there was a group with very high scores, people who felt very safe sharing their ideas and raising concerns, and a group who felt less safe and therefore less likely to bring forward problems or ideas. This team of design engineers had a leader and team members who were relatively new to the industry and had a range of tenures with the company. In fact, the leader joined while working remotely during the pandemic so they didn’t have the benefit of in-person relationships and history together. Based on the sponsor’s awareness of team dynamics and a closer look at the scan results, we knew that a team debriefing would likely erode rather than build trust, especially if some people were not comfortable sharing their concerns in an open forum. For this team, individual interviews allowed for deeper understanding of what was contributing to the varied team experience. This approach allowed for insights and planning that would not have been possible with a team debriefing.
That’s the value of working with a skilled facilitator who brings a technical understanding of the assessment, the expertise to look closely at the results and the integrity to handle the post-scan conversations in a way that boosts psychological safety in the team.
This article was first published on Medium.com.