Psychological Safety, Two Ways

Psychological Safety, Two Ways

Psychological Safety, Two Ways 1000 667 Brook Thorndycraft

A project I really enjoyed recently was the creation of a pair of videos on psychological safety, produced for Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters. At the launch event, I presented some of the background information the videos are based on, including two well-known frameworks which are significantly different from each other.

The first is Amy Edmondson’s definition and framework for psychological safety, and the second is the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.  

These are both great starting points to create a healthy culture, but they focus on different elements of psychological safety, so it can be helpful to understand the difference and how they can relate to each other, so that you can choose what will work best for your context.

The best known and referenced definition

In her book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning Innovation and Growth, Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “The belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

This is probably the most internationally known and referenced definition. It is also one of the most straightforward to understand and to measure, because it narrows in specifically on level of safety and trust in relationships on a team. 

To be clear, when we talk about safety and trust in work relationships, this is not about whether people like each other or get along all of the time. On psychologically safe teams, people know that they are working together toward something that they all care about, and have enough trust to work together effectively. Most importantly, people feel enough of a sense of safety to be able to take some interpersonal risks, for example telling each other what they really think, or making a mistake.

What Do We Know About the Benefits?

Edmondson helped to conduct a study with 180 teams at Google. They found that psychological safety has a huge impact on a team’s level of success.

Researchers identified five key dynamics of effective teams: psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact. While all five were important, psychological safety was found to be the most important of the five.  People on teams with higher psychological safety were:

  • Less likely to leave Google
  • More likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates
  • More likely to bring in more revenue
  • Rated as effective twice as often by executives.

Edmondson’s Framework: Easier to Assess and Often to Implement

One of the benefits of Edmondson’s framework is that it is relatively simple to do a basic assessment of team psychological safety. 

When I am assessing a team’s level of safety, I ask people to anonymously rank their response to a long list of statements that include things such as:

  • Whether they can make mistakes without worrying they will get in trouble
  • Whether they can disagree with my colleagues or supervisors
  • Whether their team values diversity in people, backgrounds and ideas
  • If they feel they can ask their team for help when they need it
  • Whether people see each other as collaborators or competitors
  • Whether people interact with each other with empathy and respect

This is a relatively easy way to gather information about how people are feeling about their team and supervisory relationships, and it also has the benefit of potentially being easier to implement possible interventions. 

Limits of the Edmondson framework: organizational and systemic issues

Edmondson’s work is primarily about creating trust-based and safe enough relationships on a particular team. This is a strength because of the easier assessment, but it may also be limited in how much this framework can get at the larger organizational or systemic issues that might be impacting team dynamics or people’s general sense of psychological safety in the workplace. 

As one example, when people measure psychological safety on a team without considering larger issues around equity and diversity, it is possible for a team to get a high score on the assessment without necessarily having real psychological safety. This is because teams that are fairly homogenous can get along quite well and feel quite safe without really challenging each other. Teams may also knowingly or unknowingly exclude people who aren’t considered “a fit” thereby reinforcing the homogeneity, and also the sense of safety. There are ways to address this by disaggregating data based on identity groups, but it is an example of how psychological safety can be more complex as soon as we consider broader systemic issues. For more about the overlap between psychological safety and equity, check out this blog post

Canada’s National Standard: Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace

The Mental Health Commission of Canada’s National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace (National Standard) is more comprehensive than Edmondson’s framework. Because of this, it is more able to identify and address some of the broader organizational issues that impact people’s psychological safety in the workplace. 

The National Standard names thirteen factors of psychological health and safety. These factors are (paraphrased):

  • Organizational Culture: Having a work environment that is characterized by trust, honesty and fairness
  • Psychological and Social Support: Ensuring that people’s mental health needs are supported and addressed in appropriate ways 
  • Clear Leadership and Expectations: Leadership helps people know what they need to do and why their work is important. People are informed about upcoming changes
  • Civility and Respect: Everyone interacts with respect and consideration
  • Psychological Competency and Requirements: People’s interpersonal and emotional skills fit well with what they are expected to do in their role. They are not expected to take on responsibilities that are outside of their capacity
  • Growth and Development: Employees are encouraged and supported to grow in their personal and professional goals
  • Recognition and Reward: Peoples successes as well as their efforts are acknowledged and appreciated 
  • Involvement and Influence: People have opportunities to participate in discussions about their work, and are included in any important decisions that impact them
  • Workload Management: Tasks and responsibilities can be accomplished with healthy stress levels in the time available
  • Engagement: People feel connected to their work and motivated to do it well
  • Work-life balance: There is recognition and respect for people’s responsibilities and interests outside of work
  • Psychological Protection: The work environment is free from harassment, bullying, and other forms of psychological harm
  • Protection of Physical Safety: People are protected from physical hazards at work

Many of these factors have some overlap with the Edmondson framework, particularly Organizational Culture, Psychological and Social Support, Civility and Respect, Involvement and Influence, and Psychological Protection. However, this framework goes beyond the interpersonal relationships on a team to take an overall organizational focus on psychological health and safety. It is more about changing culture, policies and practices throughout an entire organization or company.

Benefits and Limitations of the National Standard

The National Standard is an excellent and robust framework to identify and address the underlying causes of low psychological safety in a workplace. When used effectively, it has great potential to transform an entire organization. While any workplace of any size and level of complexity can benefit from this kind of intervention, this is particularly helpful in larger companies or institutions where the impacts of standardized policies, procedures and overall organizational culture has a substantial impact on how people feel about coming to work, and what it feels like to work there. 

The main limitation I have identified with the National Standard is that it is a much more intensive process to assess what the issues are, and sometimes, to implement solutions. Assessing the thirteen factors may involve policy review, more intensive surveys and employee engagement, process mapping, and other methods of data collection and analysis. The assessment also might surface larger organizational issues that can be harder to address. While the results of this work can be transformative, it may be beyond the capacity of smaller or more resource limited organizations. 

That being said, there are many resources available (for example here and here), and many consultants and change practitioners (including Big Waves) who are trained to support organizations to apply the National Standard. 

Either Way, Greater Psychological Safety is a Process and a Journey

No matter the approach you take, greater psychological safety is about culture change, and that is a journey that will take some time. 

Before I get into the specifics of what this might look like, I want to say that any assessment of psychological safety requires great care, a willingness to receive challenging feedback, and a commitment to addressing barriers to safety that are named. Even with an anonymous assessment process, when we ask people to share about the level of safety on their team or in their workplace, we are asking them to share their vulnerable experience. If that experience is met with resistance, denial, or inertia, the feelings of a lack of safety very often will worsen. So before you begin any assessment process, make sure your workplace is committed to following through on making change. 

Be Prepared to Adapt

In my culture change work, I have found that an adaptive approach works best. This is because culture is complex and constantly changing based on people’s interactions, expectations and behaviours. 

Once you have identified in your workplace that you would like to increase psychological safety, the process may go something like the following:

The first step is to ensure that leadership is onboard with a change process, and that there is real buy-in and a shared understanding of why it is necessary and what the desired outcome would be. 

Once there is real buy-in, then the second step is to do an assessment to understand what is currently happening. You will use a range of tools to identify what is currently going well, where there are problems, and what kinds of interventions might move you closer to your ideal state. You will also want to establish a method of evaluation, including metrics or indicators to be able to evaluate how things are going on an ongoing basis. 

Third, after you assess, you take the information you gained and try some interventions that are likely to help based on that information. They can be all kinds of things including leadership coaching, respectful workplace training, updating policies and procedures, creating psychological support systems, assessing and adjusting workload, and so on. The range and scale of possible interventions will be greater for larger organizational transformation. 

Once you have applied the first round of interventions, it’s very important to evaluate them. Did they move you closer to your ideal state? Why or why not? What else might help? 

After evaluating your interventions so far, you are very likely to need to choose more interventions, especially with larger organizational change. If there has been success in the first round, the next round is likely to include more internal capacity building. This might include leadership development, teambuilding, and likely there are some educational and communications strategies that will need to be employed.

Once you are reaching something close to the culture you want to have, then you will need to strengthen and maintain it. This is an ongoing process, and you will want to integrate a mechanism for ongoing assessment, for example employee engagement surveys or other feedback mechanisms. 

Whichever Framework You Choose, This is Great Work to Do

Committing to creating greater psychological safety at your workplace has tremendous benefits for everyone who works there, as well as for the reputation, effectiveness and future success of your organization. People in high trust and high safety workplaces are happier, more engaged, effective, innovative and collaborative, and are more likely to stay and build a stronger organization together. You can turn your workplace into a place where people want to work long term, where they feel like a part of the team, and where they feel excited to bring their best to achieving the organizational purpose. 

If you think you may want to increase psychological safety at your workplace, consider contacting Big Waves for a free thirty minute consultation.