Psychological Safety: The Key to High-Performing and Healthier Teams

Psychological Safety: The Key to High-Performing and Healthier Teams

I enjoy horror movies. 

For a long time, however, I never told anyone. I was embarrassed about telling friends and co-workers about my affection for the macabre. My sense of embarrassment came from the feeling that horror movies were not an acceptable form of entertainment, and not to be discussed at work. In brief, people would think I’m weird.

It’s not easy to tell people, in particular co-workers, about our interests because sharing this makes us feel vulnerable. We open ourselves up to the potential of criticism or embarrassment because of the perception that our interests either are not shared by the other person or that they may look down on us because of those interests – in my case, horror movies.

Psychological safety is not only important for high-performing teams, but also because employees are more likely to raise issues about their work, their growth, or their pay.

At Peakon, we hear a lot from organizations that want their employees to “bring their whole selves to work” and “feel like they belong.” While there is no singular solution to create this kind of candor and authenticity, one of the major underpinnings of this is Psychological Safety, which has roots with William Kahn, and became the focus of research led by Amy C. Edmondson and studies about Google’s high-performing teams

In short, psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able, even obligated, to be candid – and has never been more essential than it is now given how the world of work has changed in 2020. 

“Prioritizing psychological safety is incredibly important because it is a privilege to be able to comfortably share your views without worry of risk to yourself or potential team dynamics, said Sheree Atechson, Peakon’s Global Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. “We all must prioritize psychological safety in our work, teams, and lives because it leads to a healthier team environment, where trust, honesty and transparency are threaded through our culture’s DNA.” 

Psychological safety is not only important for high-performing teams, but also because employees are more likely to raise issues about their work, their growth, or their pay. And according to Peakon’s Heartbeat report, all three of those themes have been found to be early-indicators of unwanted attrition.

This sounds good, but how can you create psychologically safe spaces at work everyday? We’ve listed some practical suggestions to get you started.

Tell someone how you’re really doing

As social as human beings can be, we tend to fall into the habit of avoiding conflict or genuine emotion at work. We all have asked someone “How are you doing” only to receive the standard response “good thanks… and you?” 

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with answering this way, it does become an “out” from having to be vulnerable with each other. 

The thing about being vulnerable is most people will reciprocate it! By answering honestly about how we are actually doing, and even going into some detail, we’re  inviting the other person to do the same. It’s through these kinds of interactions that we build a level of comfort and trust, which are crucial for creating psychological safety.

Replace “the weather” with a more personal ice-breaker

I’ll be the first to admit that my default small talk starter question usually has something to do with the weather. And it’s understandable why. It’s everywhere and everyone can relate to it. 

The problem is, it does nothing but perpetuate the discomfort that usually accompanies small talk. It’s meant to build rapport, yet it also gives us an out to avoid sharing something more intimate and personal. When you open up the next Zoom call, perhaps we can re-work our default questions to be more human-centered and open to thoughtful conversation. Here are some ideas:

  • What is the best show/movie you’ve seen during the lockdown?
  • Have you read anything worth recommending?
  • Have you discovered any new talents or hobbies?
  • How are you creating space between work and home in the world of remote work?
  • What’s the first vacation you would like to take when it’s safe to travel again?
  • Do you prefer working from home or working in an office?

These questions can break up the monotony of just talking about the weather, and give us an opportunity to build connections around genuine sharing of interests rather than painful small talk.

Own your space and your situation so others do the same

Apologizing can be a powerful tool, but we often use apologies to excuse very human and real occurrences that don’t necessarily warrant an apology. It’s natural for us to become embarrassed if our dog is barking in the background or our kids are playing loudly in another room, yet these things are happening to all of us in some way or another these days. 

Whether you’re working from home or going out to work, our home lives have fundamentally changed the level of access we have to each other’s lives. I’ve written about owning your space before but I think it bears reminding – people have to feel welcomed and feel like they belong to safely be themselves. This can be as simple as letting people know that “It’s okay” and they don’t have to apologize for absolutely normal things.

  • It’s okay to hold your child while you’re on the call
  • It’s okay to soothe your barking dog
  • It’s okay that your cat ambushes your lap while you’re on a Zoom meeting
  • It’s okay that you have stuff on the walls behind you

I mentioned that I didn’t like to tell people about my love for horror films because I was fearful of how people might perceive me. Now, my affection for horror films is no secret. I talk about it openly and with others. Even if they don’t share the same interests, they get to know me a little better. What happens more often than not is that it starts a conversation. I’m asked for recommendations or I’m told how someone’s partner loves them and they don’t. 

It creates a connection, and that really is what cultivating psychological safety is about. Making it easier for us to connect with one another, without fear of judgment, so that we can work better together. 

My absurd movie wall of mostly horror films.