Psychological safety blog cover. Image is black & white and shows a group of kids facing away with their arms over each other's shoulders.

Written by:
Iain Blair

Psychological safety: the most important factor in high-performing teams?

Psychological safety is often talked about, but what does it mean? And more importantly, is it the key to having a high-performing team?

The business case for diversity, equity and inclusion is stronger than ever. But to really reap the rewards, you’ve got to do a lot more than just getting the right people in the building.

What’s the point in having brilliant people from diverse backgrounds if you never listen to them? What’s the point in paying top dollar for experts that are too scared to speak up? Employees have to feel safe putting forward their ideas, questions and concerns. They’ve got to know they can make mistakes without judgement. This is known as ‘psychological safety’, and there’s a growing belief that it’s the most important factor in high-performing teams – and I couldn’t agree more.

While building psychological safety has clear business benefits, it’s just the right thing to do, isn’t it? It should go without saying that everybody should feel safe to express themselves in their place of work.

If only it was like that in reality. We’ve all seen or heard of a toxic workplace, where everything seems dandy on the surface, but chaos and resentment are just bubbling away underneath.

Spotting the signs of workplace toxicity

The signs of a toxic team aren’t always easy to spot.

They start behind closed doors, in cliques. Some people feel like there’s no point speaking up because ‘what’s my manager going to do about it anyway?’ Sound familiar?

Employees might just tell you what they think you want to hear. This, in itself, is a sign that things aren’t right.

If team members feel like they can’t voice their concerns you’ve got a big problem. You actually want to see the odd disagreement from time to time – not only does it show that employees care, but it also suggests they don’t have a fear about speaking up.

Imagine a world where all members of a political party backed the decisions and policies of the leadership no matter how bad they are. Oh wait… you hardly have to imagine that at all.

Building a psychologically safe environment

Psychological safety isn’t rocket science. But I realise that the hybrid working environment we now find ourselves in doesn’t always lend itself to people really opening up over Zoom. Tech might be great for collaboration, but how do you increase psychological safety in a virtual team?

It works much the same as it does IRL: create impromptu encounters, be open and honest about your mistakes, track your team’s energy levels and create space for 1:1 coaching sessions.

Don’t be afraid to experiment a little to see what works. If something doesn’t quite come off, ask your team what could be done to improve it – that’s increasing psychological safety right there.

According to Dr Timothy Clark, who’s an expert in psychological safety, employees have to progress through the four stages before they feel free to make valuable contributions and challenge the status quo.

So to bring this to life, here’s how we use his theory to create a safe environment at Revoco:

Stage 1: Inclusion safety (Connect and belong)

We have all sorts here – and I mean that in the best way possible! Revoco is full of characters, who work differently and are motivated differently. As leaders, we adapt our management style to fit them, rather than force them to change to suit us. One of our values is ‘we are who we are’ and we truly embrace that.

Stage 2: Learner safety (Learn and grow)

We have regular daily ‘stand-up sessions’ to discuss issues, ask for help or pose questions. We provide feedback as a group and in individual one to ones. Nobody is ever chastised for asking questions or not knowing something. We invest a lot in learning and development at all seniority levels – we want our team to be able to educate us as much as we try to help them. We all learn from each other.

Stage 3: Contributor safety (Make a difference)

As a recruitment business, we’re entirely reliant on consultants being awesome at their job. Without their contribution, we’re worth diddly-squat. So, naturally, it’s a highly incentivised environment here. We make sure everyone knows that their hard work counts – whether they’ve managed a tricky placement or said something positive to a candidate or client on the phone.

Stage 4: Challenger safety (Speaking up)

If I wear a “Dad” shirt to work, I know about it. There’s a relatively flat hierarchy at Revoco, which means I get a ribbing from the entire team. But seriously, our culture of not being afraid of failure (not saying that my wardrobe is a failure ..) means consultants feel comfortable both giving and receiving feedback on their work. Business isn’t meant to run smoothly 100% of the time – we learn from the lows and celebrate the highs.

We’ve talked a lot about psychological safety here, but what about remote teams? This is even trickier to get right! Our next Workplace 2.0 webinar is all about building psychological safety within remote teams. Come and get some first-hand advice from Yssine Matola (VP of People at Heydoc), Karin Brawn (Independent HR Consultant) and Matt Bonetti (Head of DX at Hargreaves Lansdown)! You can sign up here.


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