What Blocks the Emergence of Psychological Safety?

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What Blocks the Emergence of Psychological Safety?

​Psychological safety provides the foundations of great team cohesion, but what exactly does it mean? In the name of avoiding definition dilution, here’s what Amy Edmundson explained it as when she coined the term back in 1999:

‘Psychological Safety – a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking,’

Solid interpersonal relationships improve the ease by which team members can communicate, eliminating fear of judgement when speaking out. It might sound simple enough, but it’s incredibly difficult to achieve without taking a measured, active approach to leadership and team building.

Even then, plenty of people fail to develop the kind of environment that allows individuals to arrive at psychological safety.

So what’s the big blockage? Here are some of the barriers that can prove troublesome on the journey towards creating a psychologically safe team.

1.    Steep Hierarchies

Flat hierarchies are gaining traction by what feels like the second, proving for many to be a strong viable alternative to the traditional, ‘steeper’ alternative. The difference lies in the number of management layers – the steep hierarchy features more layers than its flat counterpart.

What does it have to do with psychological safety you might ask? Flat hierarchies have been known to improve communication between teams, raising efficiency and empowering employees in the process, all possible factors of psychological safety.

Generally, steep hierarchies put more distance between teams, reducing the number of opportunities available to provide feedback. Again, feedback culture (and the ability to constructively disagree) are vital building blocks on the route to psychological safety.

Both structures have their own list of pros and cons, and they’re not the only kind of hierarchy in town, depending on who you ask.

2.    Inappropriate Language and the Bad Side of Banter

Language is both a barrier and a bridge to meaning, depending on the context. Where light-hearted banter will work well for one team, it’ll go down like a lead cliché for another. Sharing knowledge openly and honestly (and without fear of humiliation) is the key to strong communication, but this raises an important question about how exactly that knowledge is shared.

When does banter become bullying? If the person on the receiving end of the banter feels like they can’t speak out, or as though they’re being targeted unfairly and maliciously, it’s bullying, and it prevents psychological safety in the workplace. Banter works when everyone is in on the joke, and when everyone is accepting of the relationship dynamic that enables that joke to work.

If people are afraid to communicate, they’re not safe, nor are they likely to be able to fully engage with the rest of the team. Effective language, and therefore, communication is always rooted in both active listening and emotional intelligence. Empathic teams can teach one another a great deal, and it’s a reliable catalyst for emotional intelligence.

3.    Inactive Listening

Active listening is tougher to get right than many people first imagine. It stretches beyond the face value of the message too – it encompasses paralinguistics and non-verbal forms of communication, be it posture, delivery intonation, etc., and it actively seeks to understand rather than simply prepare for a reply.

So how do you do it? Or better yet, how do you encourage it among others? Bias training is important in this space, as is avoiding interruptions, staying focussed on the speaker, and responding directly to any points made. Open and honest communication should always be encouraged, but as long as it’s encouraged in a way that suits everyone, not just the extroverts.

People communicate in different ways, or at the very least, prefer communicating in different ways. The best way to find out what kind of communication works for your team is getting to know them, and then adjusting your expectations accordingly, perhaps shifting focus from what communication ‘should’ look like, to what kind of communication is effective.

Much of what makes for great active listening boils down to the relationship dynamic. Terrible leaders won’t take the input of junior members of staff seriously, for example, when in reality, everybody is valid, regardless of their seniority.

Great leaders, on the other hand, are nowhere near as exclusionary – they make sure everyone has the opportunity to speak and actively listen.

Find the Right Solution

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