Psychological safety

By Randy Chittum, Ph.D.

rep-dec16-safetyWe talk a lot about trust in our teams and groups. We might soon be talking about psychological safety instead.

Psychological safety has a fairly practical definition. Amy Edmondson describes it as “the shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Having watched and studied teams for more than 20 years, I suspect we have much less of this than we imagine. Peter Senge has said that the collective intelligence of a group is less than the average intelligence of that same group. I find this, sadly, too often to be the case. And the primary reason for it is this particular source of interference called psychological safety.

SCARF model
David Rock, a mindfulness and brain researcher, has developed a model that is a summary of the five most common things that our modern-day brains may experience as threats. They are detailed in his SCARF model:

S Status
C Certainty
A Autonomy
R Relatedness
F Fairness

Our brains are hardwired to notice these. When we experience, for example diminishing status or uncertainty, a loss of autonomy, not being included, or unfairness, our brain experiences this as the type of threat from which it needs to protect us. In simple terms, this means that the thinking part of our brain starts to shut down. As that happens, we lose perspective, judgment, and eventually performance suffers.

How many times have you heard a leader say “everyone should feel free to share his or her real thoughts”? How many times did it make a difference in what you shared, or didn’t share? Real safety in a team is best measured by how willing team members are to speak up with confidence that they will not be diminished or rejected in some way. The paradox of understanding what is happening in your team is that if you lack safety, by definition no one will tell you. Almost every team I see lacks this type of safety to some degree. It is not binary and virtually every team has room to navigate on this issue.

Psychological safety is not only the absence of something, but the presence of something as well. When safety is present, mistakes are not only tolerated but presented for learning. There is a “lightness” to how people interact. People are not diminished for being an outlier, but instead are rewarded. This is truly one of those times that action speaks louder than words.

It is important to note that none of this means we should have reduced expectations, or lowered desire to achieve. It simply means that our best path to that end is the one that values and acknowledges people for their humanity.