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8 most commonly cited ways to build psychological safety through team development

by Sarah-Jane Dale

27 January 2020

A colleague was at a large event recently and found herself part of a break-out group composed entirely of people she had never met before. When her suggestion for a task received a stony silence, she felt uncomfortable and less inclined to participate further. It was a brief encounter with an environment lacking in psychological safety; luckily a far cry from our ‘home team’ – characterised by a climate of trust, respect and support.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety, ‘‘the belief that one will not be judged negatively or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes’’, is a particularly important principle in enabling teams, and communities of teams, to perform at their best.

It’s twenty years since Harvard Business School’s Professor Amy Edmondson, carried out her wide-ranging study into safety, trust and learning in work teams and identified the concept of psychological safety. She defines it as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’

“In practice, it means that whatever we say or do within our team, we’re not going to be ridiculed, embarrassed or punished,” says Professor Michael West, Advisory Consultant at AOD. “On the contrary, when we are encouraged to offer our views and supported in exploring those ideas, we feel safe to talk about things we’re not sure about or errors we’ve made. We can disagree, we can volunteer a blue-sky idea, we can challenge an assumption.”

Since Amy Edmondson’s study in 1999, psychological safety has continued to attract considerable interest from academics and practitioners in healthcare management, organisational development and occupational psychology.

Evidence suggests that psychological safety plays a significant role in workplace effectiveness irrespective of sector, type of organisation, country or region (Edmondson and Lei, 2014).

For example, Project Aristotle at Google found that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work. More recently, the NHS Patient Safety Strategy, published in July 2019, highlights psychological safety as one the key features of a patient safety culture.


For Mersey Care NHS Trust, recognising the importance of psychological safety and investing in appropriate support for leaders and teams remains a key priority:

“We know through our evaluations that developing compassionate leadership and team-based working has a direct impact on psychological safety and empowers front-line staff to improve patient safety and outcomes,” says Jo Davidson, Associate Director Workforce; Organisational Effectiveness and Learning at Mersey Care NHS Trust.


Laying the foundations for trust, safety and support through team structure and processes

The impact of leadership behaviours in creating psychologically safe environments in teams is well-documented (see Extreme Teaming by Edmondson and Harvey 2019), less so the impact of good structure and processes in teams.

In fact, so much in team development contributes to psychological safety, trust, support and participation, that it’s hard to select those elements with most impact.

Here are 8 activities our team-based working specialists recommend:

 

1. Agree operating principles

All teams should have operating principles or ‘ground rules’ which direct the way in which individuals work. Sometimes these are beautifully crafted guidelines which create environments in which every team member can contribute their best, grow and flourish. But often they develop unnoticed over time and create climates of negativity, inefficiency and fear.

2. Ensure role clarity

Role clarity is vital to support the development of team synergy. It enhances team members’ confidence in one another and in the team as a whole, as well as increasing individual feelings of belonging, safety, confidence and motivation.

3. Improve decision making

In well-functioning teams, the decision-making process is clear. But it’s easy for personality, individual dominance, status, hierarchy and other social factors to undermine the effectiveness of decision making.

4. Assess team climate

The most innovative teams are those in which every team member feels safe to express their views, to ask for help or advice and where they feel confident to put forward new ideas. Such climates of participative safety will enable the appropriate risk taking that is necessary for creativity and innovation.

5. Evaluate team meetings

For meetings to be effective they need to be relevant, of value to the individuals who attend and valuing the contribution of attendees. Without these characteristics, attendance falls, decision making is poor and motivation within the team begins to suffer.

6. Review information sharing

Effective teams share information in ways that ensure the best possible decision making and creative working practices in order to deliver their objectives. Distrust within teams and between teams often arises because people feel that information has been withheld or used in a manipulative way.

7. Increase constructive debate

Team climates in which constructive debate is encouraged and well-managed enable team members to think more independently, offer new ideas and challenge dangerous practises. This in turn creates higher levels of job satisfaction and engagement.

8. Develop cooperative relationships with other teams

Inter-professional trust is key to successful multi-disciplinary team working. In high performing teams, members take time to understand the differences in working practices associated with other groups. They use positive language and are able to provide constructive feedback to colleagues from all professional groups.

 

Developing a climate of trust, safety and support in teams does not just happen. It takes time to develop the structure and processes teams need to bring about psychological safety, synergy and innovation. We just need to do it!

For help with the activities above, check out the Affina Team Journey or call us on 01252 727270 for more information.

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