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  • Writer's pictureDan Manning

Real Talk About Psychological Safety -- Does it mean what you think it means?

Psychological safety is not about avoiding consequences. It is not trusting an organization, and there are some things more important than psychological safety. But, to read social media posts about the powerful concept, it is permission to be radical without consequences.

Semantics evolve in every language, but some words evolve faster than others. New words or concepts begin unknown, then are misunderstood, then accepted into common use, then overused, then twisted to mean what we wish they meant in the first place.

Today this is happening with the concept of psychological safety before our eyes.

I see posts on LinkedIn equating psychological safety with avoiding consequences, eschewing contrary points of view to avoid psychological triggers, or withholding public criticism.

According to Dr. Amy Edmondson, the leading researcher on the subject, psychological safety leads to a team dynamic “in which interpersonal fear is minimized so that the team and organizational performance can be maximized in a knowledge intensive world.”

The bottom line of psychological safety is “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

That’s it. The presence of psychological safety reduces the risk of interpersonal conflict in cases where:

1. Interpersonal relationships are in play 2. A group of people have mutual recognition of a shared goal

If either of these conditions don’t apply, it is not a question of psychological safety in this context.

If we want creative, high-performing, collaborative teams we need to understand these truths:

1. Psychological safety is not about avoiding negative consequences.

In The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmondson specifically says, “psychological safety is not about being ‘comfortable’ at work.” Why? Because comfort does not lead team members to seek challenges. No Challenge = No Innovation.

In fact, Dr. Edmondson says the best performing teams are those with a combination of high standards and high psychological safety. These are the trauma teams who save lives by being alert for mistakes. These are the designers who crank out compelling work on a tight deadline. These are the strategists who turn concepts into useful guides for action. These are the startups who fail, learn, and pivot.

In each of these cases, underperforming team members must either improve their skills or leave the team. Hard conversations, however, are about performance not personality. (More on this in a minute.)

2. Psychological safety is built on trust

Here, I diverge from Dr. Edmondson, because we use different definitions of trust. She says “psychological safety and trust are not interchangeable.” She says trust is an interpersonal phenomenon, but psychological safety is expressed (or not) at the group level

Dr. Edmondson’s concept of trust leans more toward reliability…will you do what you say you will do.

But, at #HumanIntelligence, we define trust as “believing, when given the chance, you will not do something damaging to me.” (Adapted from a chapter in Trust in Organizations by Dr. Debra Meyerson.)

The question I ask myself before choosing to take otherwise risky interpersonal behavior is, “do I trust your intentions enough to expose a personal vulnerability?”

Trusting intentions is not the same as trusting someone’s ability.

My 14-year old son enjoys driving our Jeep in the wide-open expanse of our private land, but I would not let him drive anywhere near other people or obstacles. I trust he would not intend to damage the Jeep, but I do not trust he has the ability to avoid doing so in an even mildly challenging situation.

In teams I led in the Air Force, the problems we faced were multi-faceted, complex, and complicated. While I had great trust in the intentions of Airmen on the team, occasionally someone would not have the experience or training to warrant trust in their ability.

While we talk of psychological safety in the context of groups, my experience has been that it manifests in the interlocking web of multiple person-to-person trusting relationships. People do not trust groups, they trust individuals.

A time-honored lesson of leadership is to “praise in public” and “criticize in private.” In terms of psychological safety, I prefer “give credit when it is due” and “learn when you can”. Genuine praise does not generally trigger interpersonal risk, and we should recognize favorable outcomes and behaviors whenever possible.

Criticism, however, points directly to interpersonal risk…the singular condition psychological safety aims to mitigate. As sophisticated as our brains may be, there is little difference between our response to physical threats and psychological threats. Hearts race. Breath quickens. Palms sweat, yet are somehow cold at the same time. Our minds search for the quickest way out, either through conflict, with avoidance, or by numbing ourselves.

No matter the path we choose to take…fight, flight, or freeze, we are not thinking. We are not overcoming cognitive illusions. We are not generating creative ideas. We are not collaborating. We simply want the pain to end, and we want to avoid similar pain in the future.

As a fighter pilot, EVERY mission, whether in training or combat, ended with a debrief. These debriefs crystallized learning. When the briefing door shuts, aircrew expect to be held to the highest possible standard. Whether instructor, flight lead, wingman, or student, each person is expected to hold the rest accountable for their mistakes and to learn from one another’s skill. Each person is expected to debrief their own performance with the same level of precision they use to debrief others.

Aircrew who choose not to do this are quickly identified and either chose to align with the norms of the squadron or find themselves in another assignment when the time comes.

Here’s why…even though the fighter squadrons I was a part of were intensely competitive, each person knew they may be in a position to rely on the skills of another in a life-or-death situation. No one had an interest in creating an atmosphere where a person might circumscribe their actions based on the risk of interpersonal conflict. All that mattered was skillful performance in the safest way the situation allowed.

In some professions, the absence of psychological safety leads to fatalities. In others the absence “simply” leads to team members withholding good ideas and ignoring opportunities for improvement. When we are tackling the toughest, hairiest, thorniest problems, we can’t allow ideas to stay locked inside our teammates brains because they believe you will do something psychologically or socially damaging to them if they speak up.

3. Psychological safety is not about removing boundaries, it is about creating a single very clear one.

In those debrief rooms, video clips from missions are examined in, sometimes, excruciating detail. A gun pass that took 5 seconds may lead to a 10 minute discussion about aim, attack angles, or airspeed control. Worthwhile debriefs are always focused on performance, not personality or person. No matter who made the error—me, my boss, or my student--the debrief should be the same.

The same applies to a high-performing team. A discussion of success, failures, strengths, and shortcomings should always end at the bright line of the person as an individual. Behaviors, outcomes, ideas, and performance are always subject to evaluation. A person’s individual worth or access to social support is not.

Here’s the real talk:

Psychological safety is a continuum rather than a switch. Following every #HumanIntelligence workshop, we have a debrief…or more appropriately, a series of debriefs. We first debrief with the group participating in the workshop using a short survey or discussion to understand how they feel about our performance delivering the workshop. We then debrief with the client who hired us to examine how well we met the objectives we agreed to before the session. We then debrief among our own team examining every aspect of our performance from preparation to delivery…even how well we performed the earlier 2 debriefs.

But, the things we say to one another are not the same in each of the debriefs. As the group gets smaller and smaller, we allow ourselves to debrief topics that approach increasing vulnerability.

Even though our team may have high standards and high levels of psychological safety, my team members will not use the first debrief to mention I made the same error today that I made with a group last week. Doing so would expose a new psychological vulnerability that may exceed the psychological safety I experience with the individuals I may have only met once.

They will be sure, however, to hold me accountable by the time we get to our more private debrief. In a few circumstances, a team member may ask for a private call at the end to discuss a more vulnerable subject or observation. As the vulnerability of the issue increases, the level of psychological safety needed to honestly address the issue must also increase.

Psychological safety does not always lead to altruistic outcomes. The insurrectionists that attacked the Capitol on January 6th enjoyed high levels of psychological safety on their teams. I believe they acted on authentically held, yet horribly misinformed, beliefs. This outcome was the result of compounded unwarranted conspiracy theories that thrived on the easy acceptance of new ideas that were incorporated into the theory. “You believe Big Tech and Big Pharma are colluding with Satan-worshipping, child-eating pedophiles? Sure, that’s a possibility.”

When I lived with a Russian-speaking family in Ukraine for a month while I was studying Russian, I had a conversation with a babushka about life during the Soviet Union. She said life was so much better then. She said no one had to worry about going homeless or being broke. There was a social safety net, she explained. In contrast, if you lost your job today, you could be on the street in just a few weeks.

I asked her, “True…but what about freedoms…like freedom of speech?”

She immediately answered, “Freedom of speech only matters if you have something to say.”

In the same way, psychological safety only matters if you need it. If everyone in the group is showing up with the same ideas, avoiding interpersonal conflict is easy. It is only when team members are trusting you with their contrary ideas when you must choose to be worthy of that trust by acting with psychological safety.

(NB: This is not an excuse to be contrary just for the sake of being a contrarian. Always being a nay-sayer is no more useful than always being a yea-sayer. If you find yourself always disagreeing, find out why. Is your communication style not being received? Do other people feel the same way, but aren’t speaking up? Is there a fundamental principle you don’t understand? Or are you simply running into a brick wall that only serves to damage your own mental health?)

Psychological safety is not a moral imperative. Amidst the celebration of the benefits of psychological safety, this can be a tough one to reconcile. Acting according to the principles of psychological safety, I aim to allow others to feel accepted in exchange for their ideas and the vulnerability required to access them. This does not mean the team has to suffer misogyny, racism, abusive language, or offensive behavior in the name of “accepting the whole person.”

In the end, psychological safety is an instrument to achieve better ideation, innovation, and team performance. Pursuing psychological safety for one person does not mean accepting psychological damage to others. The team, especially the leader, must act to constrain these behaviors…even at the risk of decreasing psychological safety with a team member.

On the other hand, a team with exceptionally strong psychological safety may be able to use that resource to have a deeply authentic conversation with a team member about their beliefs or behavior that is psychologically damaging to others. If successful, these conversations will cement a powerful group bond and deepen the feeling of trust and safety among the team.

I am a believer in the power of psychological safety to generate game-changing outcomes and solutions to the toughest problems we have today. Continued erosion of the concept through lazy linguistics only serves to create opportunity for teams to reject psychological safety as the refuge of those who “can’t take the heat.” By better understanding the concept, we can all drive to create an atmosphere where team members feel comfortable enough to reflexively choose personal vulnerability in exchange for group success.

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