5 Misconceptions About Psychological Safety​

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It’s a concept that has been explored since the 1930s – firstly in education, then in team effectiveness and productivity and more recently linking to organisational performance, innovation, growth and risk management. It is often confused with mental health, psycho-social hazards and psychology; some people think it is a soft and fuzzy concept and others will pursue it for the sustainable, organisational benefits it is sure to produce.  

So for some clarity: psychological safety is the belief that a person feels like they are part of a team, they can ask for help and clarity to learn, they can contribute to work effort and they can pursue improvement by challenging the status quo – without feeling like they might be punished or humiliated. 

Teams with a high level of psychological safety not only allow, but encourage, team members to express opinions, offer new ideas, challenge the status quo, question decisions, take risks and admit mistakes. Team members will do so because they don’t fear being humiliated or punished by their team leader or fellow team members when they do speak out. It’s clear that having low psychological safety can negatively impact team performance and diminish organisational performance. It has a direct correlation to the quality of decision-making and recommendation scores from employees.

In a survey conducted by People Plus Science, four out of 10 decision-makers in a boardroom felt psychologically safe the majority of the time. And only 25% believed that their decision-making was highly effective as a result of the dynamics around the boardroom.

The NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI) found that people, on average, report feeling a level of psychological safety that hovers just above 4 on a 7-point scale — not the lowest of levels but an area with lots of room for improvement.

Google researchers in Project Aristotle found psychological safety is a critical element of higher performance and more engagement. It was found that it was essential to the creation of high-performance work teams.

After working with boards and organisations undertaking significant change and transformation over the past few years here are some of our key learnings about what psychological safety is NOT:

Myth #1: Our culture and engagement surveys are great – therefore our work environment is great

The perception gap between what our leadership team perceives is a safe environment and what our frontline staff and managers believe, is getting wider when it comes to people and culture. 

Internal surveys are met with distrust, cynicism and fear of reprisals. Culture and engagement surveys have continued to provide a false sense of security for boards and leadership teams. 

Internal culture surveys can only be delivered if the following are present:

1. psychological safety  2. high levels of trust  3. high levels of respect        4. a culture of listening and responding  5. there is no perceived conflict of interest (hard to do when you are employed by the business owner or CEO 6. the strategic priorities of the business are clear  7.the governance and accountability frameworks are fit for purpose and compliance.

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A People Plus Science Boardroom Psychological Safety Benchmark Study in Australia  found that 64% of middle management and frontline employees had low to very low levels of trust in the leadership teams and that most organisations do not demonstrate the positive behaviours that create an environment of psychological safety. Specifically:

  • Only 40% of respondents report a positive climate. 

  • Only 14% said that they felt valued for their skillsets
  • Only 29% felt that knowledge and information was shared to enable true collaboration and decision making.
  • Approximately 65% said that they did not feel safe to share ideas, opions or seek clarifcation on issues raised. 

In addition, People plus Science research reveals only three in ten Australians strongly agree that, at work, their opinions count. This is reflective of Gallup’s survey who found that three out of 10 US employees felt similarly.

Myth #2: Psychological Safety is a buzz word – not something we need to address

Whether you believe psychological safety to be a buzz word or not, the fact is that psychological safety is not only a lead indicator of psychological safety, it is also a lead indicator of work place health and safety risk. 

As a result, in Australia, new workplace health and safety laws will commence in April in Qld with other states already leading the charge (Vict still to announce) – the Code of Practice and Regulation, Managing the risk of psychosocial hazards at work. The psychosocial hazards in the workplace code of practice focuses on the general principles applied to the prevention and management of psychosocial hazards in the workplace. The intent of this code is to provide practical guidance for workplaces where workers may be exposed to psychological and social hazards such as inappropriate behaviours, violence and aggression, and fatigue, stress and trauma, which can be harmful to their health. These hazards are the result of the work environment and now all responsible persons within an organisation will be responsible for ensuring a positive workplace environment or face significant financial, reputational and personal penalties. 

 

In addition, the new Respect@Work amendments will commence in April which places an additional onus on leaders to provide a “positive work environment” with even more responsibility and potential for legal action.

If business performance is not enough to have made psychological safety a priority, then hopefully the threat of lack of compliance will motivate change and encourage action.

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Myth # 3 Psychological safety is being nice all the time.

Often misunderstood as nice all the time or overly agreeable and concilatory, psychological safety is present when employees feel like they belong where they feel that they are understood, valued where they can ask for help and pursue improvement. Characteristics of psycholoigically safe environments are visible when staff are empowered to make a positive impact on customers, they can work together to solve a problem and co-design solutions without the threat of repercussions. 

However, psychological safety also needs boundaries, accountabilty frameworks and clear definitions of roles and responsibilities. When these are clear they set clear indicators of what is considered the “norm” and what behaviour is acceptable to belong to the group.

When teams feel too comfortable, they aren’t productive and are not peforming at their full potential. This is largely because when things feel easy, it can be tempting to maintain the status quo, which often ends up producing the bare minimum and resulting in missed opportunities. Those that are too comfortable often feel threatened by those who do wish to perform and start to push the “behavioural norms” amoungst new team members – “that is just the way it is done around here”. In addition, experience has shown that to challenge the status quo puts them at risk whilst saying nothing and staying under the radar is safe.

While risk and creativity pave the way for innovation, the possibility of failure that comes with taking a risk doesn’t always feel good, which is what can hold us back. In fact, brain regions designed to differentiate gains and losses allow us to easily avoid potential losses. That’s why it’s important to unlock the skills and capabilities of psychological safety so our results go beyond the goal or task at hand.   

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Myth #4. Psychological safety is an individual thing – we have no influence on how they feel.

Creating psychological safety isn’t just about the actions of a single person. It’s about a shared set of interactional behaviors aimed at common and aligned goals that a group creates together. This is based on years of research around how teams become cohesive and effective, which occurs by setting achievable, intrinsically motivating goals. Thus, when groups of individuals share a sense of belonging, or are part of an in-group, this engages a network in the brain that intrinsically rewards positive social behaviour and leads to an increased level of oxytocin which promotes bonding and connection. Once established, working together toward common goals and being motivated to achieve them are more likely.

 

Myth #5: Psychological safety means freedom from conflict.

Psychological safety is not about avoiding conflicts at work, but rather psychological safety allows for conflict to occur safely. Employees will have differing viewpoints. A truly psychological safe workplace will allow for productive disagreements. As a leader, it is important to be able to distinguish between productive and unproductive conflict to see if it’s necessary to implement psychological safety.

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There are many misconceptions about psychological safety but what the research clearly shows is that it is a lead indicator of team performance and exposure to risk. 

Reduce your exposure to “people” risk by booking a People Plus Science People and Culture Audit. See case studies on how we have help other organisations turn their greatest threat into their greatest achievements.

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