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Successful Projects: Psychological Safety

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

In the previous blog, we explored the concept of authenticity and positive relationships and their importance for managing successful projects. We finished by asking how can we create a place of safety on projects, where team members can be true to themselves? To answer this question, in this blog we will explore the concept of Psychological Safety and its importance in building successful project teams.

Psychological Safety is not yet a widely known concept. However, I believe that in the next decade the majority of forward-looking organisations will embrace it as part of their policy and provide practical training for their employees in the area. The reason for this is very simple. Psychological safety plays one of the most significant roles in high performing teams and resilient organisations.


Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, defined 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" (1999).


Psychological safety exists when people feel that they can speak up, freely share ideas and ask questions without being concerned that they will be punished or embarrassed. If you:


· shared an idea that was not welcomed, or worse still picked apart and ridiculed

· felt embarrassed when your point of view was dismissed

· have been humiliated because you admitted that you did not understand something


then it is likely that you will be:


· afraid to voice your opinion, make mistakes, or take risks

· worried or stressed about being judged or criticised

· unsure of yourself or doubt your own abilities and ideas

· dissatisfied with not being able to express yourself freely

· disappointed because you do not feel supported by colleagues or your line manager.


If this happened, you might be:


· unwilling to ask for help. This hinders your personal and professional growth

· reluctant to take part in brainstorming and problem-solving sessions and share your ideas. As a result, you might feel isolated, and become more an observer than a team member, holding back on possible creative solutions you might have.

· hesitant to speak up when you see injustice, a possible problem, error, or risks on projects. As a result, the quality of a project work will not be improved and there is a higher risk of project failure.


A lack of psychological safety can have a significant impact on individuals and their well-being, on team performance and can directly impact projects and organisational success.

How important is psychological safety for effective teamwork?


In 2015, Google’s People Operations (Google’s HR department) set out to answer the question: What makes a Google team effective? According to their research it is “less important who is on a team than how the team members interact, structure their work and view their contributions” (Rozovsky, 2015). They learnt that the most important factor that set successful teams is psychological safety. It turns out that having talented individuals on the team is not enough.


What are the basic principles that build psychological safety?


Building a culture of psychological safety on projects may require going against engrained cultural forces within an organisation. Amy Edmondson described these kind of organisations as “where self-protection quietly crowds out much of the creativity, learning, or belonging that lies under the surface without our noticing” (2019). However, this should not stop us building psychological safety on projects, regardless of whether we are a team member or a project manager, and whether our organisations embrace the concept of psychological safety or not. We can always have an influence. Perhaps in the process of initiating this change we will discover that we are not the only ones on the team who are reluctant to speak up or take part in discussions, or feel afraid to share, worried about being judged and criticised, doubtful about their own ideas, and dissatisfied with team dynamics.

How can we introduce psychological safety on projects?


Here is the list of basic principles that can help to build psychological safety within project teams and, indeed, our workplaces:


Lead by example. Demonstrate psychological safety as a leader or a team member. This includes being vulnerable, admitting mistakes, sharing your own failures and challenges as learning experiences and encouraging others to do the same.


Active listening. Cultivate active listening skills. Provide opportunities for everyone to be heard and validate their experiences and emotions.


Empathy and understanding. Foster an environment where empathy and understanding are valued. Encourage others to consider each other’s perspectives, experiences, and feelings.


Open communication. Encourage honest communication. Make it clear that diverse opinions are welcome and that no one will be punished for sharing alternative viewpoints or making mistakes.


Trust and respect. Treat everyone with respect and dignity. Value their ideas, opinions and contributions. Foster a sense of belonging.

Constructive feedback. Promote constructive feedback. Encourage the giving of feedback in a respectful and supportive manner.


Learning and growth. Foster a growth mindset culture that emphasises the value of continuous learning and improvement. Emphasise that mistakes and failures are opportunities to learn and develop. Encourage individuals to take risks.


To finish with, I would like to highlight what psychological safety is not. Psychological safety should not be confused with:


· being nice

· oversharing

· creating a safe space to complain

· eliminating all boundaries or rules

· a guarantee of unanimous agreement

· avoiding conflict

· a lack of accountability

· a one-time effort or a box to check off on a list.


Above all, psychological safety is not a one-size-fits-all concept, as what feels safe for one person may not feel safe for another. We all have individual differences and experiences. Psychological safety can be created where these differences are acknowledged, respected and cherished.


In the next blog, we will explore the value of positive emotions on projects.


References


Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly 44(2), 350–383.


Edmondson, A. (2019). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth. Wiley.


Rozovsky, J. (2015, November 17). The five keys to a successful Google team.

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