Improve performance through psychological safety

Google initiated a two-year study on team performance to find what the highest-producing teams have in common: psychological safety.

Psychological safety promotes creativity, moderate risk-taking and increased innovation. Psychological safety affects engagement, attraction and retention. Here are three ways leaders can improve performance by consciously building psychological safety in the organization.

Develop front-line leaders

Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup and author of "It’s the Manager," says, “The quality of managers and team leaders is the single biggest factor in your organization’s long-term success." The problem is that most front-line leaders get their position because they were a good worker, not because they have specific leadership skills.

Front-line leaders without leadership skills make one of two mistakes: Either they try to become the best friend or they become the hard-nosed-my-way-or-the-highway type of boss. Both methods promote more workplace drama and less psychological safety.

Providing leadership development on the front end could prevent legal problems on the back end. Case in point: Burger King employees denied service to a deaf woman who was trying to place an order. Employees called the police because they were backed up and didn’t know how to move the line faster.

My prediction is that good management and leadership training would have prevented this problem altogether. Leadership development before a problem promotes more psychological safety in the workplace than sensitivity training after the damage has been done.

Initiate conversations

When I was a factory worker I had a favorite boss who initiated one-on-one conversations a couple of times a year. I looked forward to getting to know my boss and having him take an interest in me. I didn’t fear “going to the office” because going to the office didn’t necessarily mean that I had done something wrong. In contrast, other bosses only spoke with you when there was a complaint.

So many leaders today feel they don’t have time for one-on-one conversations, but this is wrong thinking. The time a leader invests in relationship building is time that doesn’t have to be spent on an exit interview. It’s through conversations that you find out what’s important to your employees, why they stay and what would make them want to go. My boss trained me on some higher-level jobs simply because he found out that I had an interest in learning.

It’s through conversations that you improve performance and offer mentoring. Instead what I see in the field is a lot of avoidance. Because there has been no prior development, leaders avoid difficult conversations that might create some uncomfortable emotions. Yet, having conversations is simply part of what enables a competent leader to promote psychological safety. 

Model a growth mindset

A fixed mindset is the belief that your skills and intelligence is set in stone. A leader who feels it necessary to prove their worth by having all the answers is modeling a fixed mindset.

But what will make your employees trust you more is to let them know about your own challenges that you have overcome. Let them see your growth mindset in action, the belief that you can get better, learn and grow. By offering them a snapshot of a less-than-perfect person who has achieved so much, allows them to feel psychologically safe when they are struggling with performance, personalities or purpose. 

Recently I was talking with a business owner who said that he feels vulnerable when he doesn’t have all the answers. But as a former employee, I can tell you without a doubt that employees are hungry to see your humanity. They want to model bosses who share their inner journey of growth. While you may not want to talk about your current challenges that you are still processing, there’s nothing wrong with sharing some of your journey, how your mind has changed, or how you have learned from previous mistakes.

Conclusion

It’s time to revisit Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. After meeting our physiological needs, we need safety. Safety in the workplace is more than safe work habits and avoiding physical injury. To build more effective teams, avoid costly mistakes, and build innovative breakthroughs we need to purposefully build cultures that provide psychological safety.  

 

Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of "Stop Workplace Drama" (Wiley 2011), "No-Drama Leadership" (Bibliomotion 2015) and "7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice" (Greenbranch 2018).  Download "The Bottom Line: How Executive Conversations Drive Results." Connect with Chism via LinkedInFacebook and Twitter and at MarleneChism.com.

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