Practical Actions to Foster Psychological Safety in Your Team

Why Focus on Psychological Safety?

Successful organizations create conditions that help team members perform effectively, solve complex problems in innovative ways, and feel a sense of inclusion and belonging among their colleagues. This requires leaders to foster a high level of psychological safety.

Psychological safety is “a 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 definition comes from Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, who has been researching psychological safety for decades. 

While there is an abundance of research and literature on why it’s important to foster psychological safety, we want to explore the how. What exactly can leaders do to foster psychological safety among team members? 

5 Leadership Behaviors that Foster Psychological Safety

Adopting any of these 5 behaviors can have a huge impact on your team’s psychological safety:

1. Welcome Other Viewpoints: “What am I missing?”

As a leader, one of the most powerful things you can do is ask, “What am I missing?” When you ask this simple question, you signal that you are open to looking at things from different angles, and even being challenged.

A leader who regularly asks for other perspectives sets an important tone by signaling that no one has all the answers, and everyone on the team has a valuable perspective worth sharing.

2. Listen to Understand: Develop the Discipline of Not Preparing a Response

When someone speaks, make it a priority to truly understand what they’re trying to communicate. As they talk, don’t think about whether they’re wrong or how you want to respond. Instead, listen with the sole intent of fully understanding their idea or point of view.

Don’t worry — the mere act of understanding someone else’s perspective doesn’t require you to give up your own opinion. Understanding is not agreeing! It’s about letting go of your need to be right and engaging in a battle of arguments. Once you fully understand another person, you can have more productive conversations and deepen the connection.

3. Hit the Pause Button: Model Non-defensive Reactions

In professional settings, it is common to become defensive. We feel attacked, so our brains tend to react as if we’re in physical danger. The fight-flight-freeze reaction takes over, and we may behave in ways that have a negative impact on psychological safety.

During intense moments, notice what you’re feeling and pause. Taking a deep breath can give you time to consider the context and respond in a constructive way. For example, when you feel challenged, ask a curious follow-up question rather than lashing out. 

4. Normalize Failure: “This Is New to Us, So We Will Make Mistakes”

Innovation and success cannot happen without failure along the way. That’s why we need to destigmatize failure. Failure is not unacceptable and it doesn’t need to be avoided. It’s a necessary by-product of innovation.

As a leader, make it explicit that the goal is not to prevent or cast blame for failure, but to learn from it. When your team tries something new, emphasize that you expect failure. Say, “This is new, so we won’t get it right the first time.” Or, “Let’s share and learn from our failures.” Team members will feel invited to take risks, try new things, and discuss what they learn. This accelerates innovation.

5. Upgrade Your Meetings: Appoint an Inclusion Booster

Often in professional meetings, only a small percentage of participants feel comfortable contributing. But this means teams are missing out on valuable, diverse viewpoints.

A great way to increase psychological safety in meetings is to appoint someone to play the role of an “Inclusion Booster.” The Inclusion Booster’s job is to invite everyone to participate, make it safe for all to speak up, and ensure dissenting ideas are acknowledged. This person also makes sure that meeting attendees follow the team’s ground rules. These can include, for example, minimizing interruptions and ensuring equal speaking time.

Diving Deeper: What Actions Foster Psychological Safety?

Each of the 5 behaviors we’ve outlined has complexity and nuance. Let’s look deeper into how two of these behaviors can be managed in common workplace situations:

How To Welcome Other Viewpoints

  1. Declare your interest in feedback
    When giving a presentation, rolling out a strategy, proposing an action plan, or floating an idea, explain your reasoning. But make it clear that you are truly interested in feedback from others. 
  2. Set expectations
    Tell people explicitly that you do not expect everyone to agree with everything you say. Emphasize that you want to avoid false harmony and groupthink.
  3. Create space for dialogue
    Periodically ask, “What am I missing?” Then wait until others respond.
  4. Keep the door open
    If no one shares feedback, let them know you’re sure you haven’t thought of every angle and you would value their thoughts. You may even want to delay a decision until you hear other perspectives. You’ll need to balance opportunities for gathering input with timely decision-making. But keep in mind that you can do both. 
  5. Express gratitude
    When others speak up, openly thank them. For example, say, “I truly appreciate your honest opinion and your willingness to share it. I know it’s not always easy to be a dissenting voice.”

How To Upgrade Your Meetings by Appointing an Inclusion Booster

  1. Establish ground rules
    Communicate meeting guidelines in advance and remind participants about these rules at the start of each session.
  2. Monitor speaking time and interruptions
    If someone is talking too much, politely thank them for their ideas and invite others to contribute. If someone interrupts another participant, you can say something like, “Maria hasn’t finished her thought. Let’s let her finish.”
  3. Help clarify thoughts that may be unclear
    For example, ask people to define acronyms or new terminology so everyone has the same level of understanding.
  4. Be aware of people who look as if they want to contribute
    If someone seems to have trouble jumping in, invite them to speak.
  5. Ask for alternative points of view
    Especially if the group quickly focuses on one line of thinking, intentionally ask participants to suggest and discuss other ideas.
  6. Be respectful and assertive
    If you are the Inclusion Booster, you are the one person who can interrupt when someone else monopolizes the meeting or dismisses another person. Use this power judiciously.

Final Notes on Psychological Safety In Practice

Declaring your workplace “a safe space” doesn’t make it so. Creating and sustaining a psychologically safe work environment is a continuous journey that requires a leader’s time, attention and commitment. It happens over time, through consistent behavior — one conversation and one team meeting at a time. 

We encourage you to try even one of the five ideas we’ve shared here. We’re confident that you’ll agree small actions can have a big impact. And small actions repeated over time can have a beautifully positive ripple effect on your team and your organization. Take that first step in your next conversation or your next meeting, and you’ll be moving in the right direction!


EDITOR’S NOTE: In developing this article, Minette Norman collaborated with Dr. Karolin Helbig, a former McKinsey consultant. Together, they also co-authored the recently published book The Psychological Safety Playbook: Lead More Powerfully by Being More Human.

Image by Elena Abrazhevich

Stop Promoting Workplace Failure and Accepting Mediocrity [Podcast]

In the world of work, we tend to be tolerant — perhaps overly tolerant — of failure. Of course, no business sets out to fail. And yet, we often find ourselves surrounded by workplace failure — often initiated by new leaders who seem to try not to fail rather than preparing for success. Even worse, as work teams and entire organizations, we too often accept the resulting mediocrity as normal.

So when do we stop promoting people only to watch them fail? How do we move work teams past normalized mediocrity?

Our Guest: Claire Chandler, Leadership Effectiveness Expert

This week on the #WorkTrends podcast, Claire Chandler, President and Founder of Talent Boost, joins us to answer my questions about why we accept mediocrity from our leaders and teams — and why companies tend to promote high-performers only to watch them fail.

Claire explained companies tend to promote individuals based on past performance rather than future potential. “Companies certainly don’t strive for failure. But organizations tend to make the assumption that a leader in a new role is going to figure it out. And without a lot of hand-holding, a lot of support, or training or onboarding. It’s as if we’re saying, ‘They’re A-players. They’ve done some great things in the past. They’ll figure it out.’ And unfortunately, the statistics don’t bear that out.” Soon, Claire intimated, a mediocre performance level becomes the norm.

“And mediocrity can turn into failure very, very quickly.”

The Root Cause of Workplace Failure: Lack of Preparedness

“McKinsey says, based on all the research and all the interviews they’ve done, that 75% of leaders cite a lack of preparedness as the number one cause of workplace and leadership failure,” Claire told us. “And it’s not ‘did they mentally prepare’ or ‘do they have the right resume,’” she added. Instead, it’s more about the preparedness that comes from leaders asking: “What will it take to succeed in this specific new role?”

Claire went on to tell us how organizations can intentionally prepare their top performers for success in new leadership roles, the importance of gaining clarity on the company mission and how a leader helps achieve that mission, and so much more. Listen to the entire episode. As you do, take a close look at your team and organization. Then ask yourself:

Does your company promote high performers then enable them to fail as leaders? Do they, and the people who work for them, start to accept mediocrity as normal?

If the answer might be yes, connect with Claire on LinkedIn or visit her website.


Both Failure and Innovation Push Companies Forward

Today, technology evolves at lightning speed. Computers, phones, apps, and software programs, just to name a few are improving constantly. New innovations are introduced almost daily; the grunt work behind the innovation process is rarely seen. While success is ingenuity that is quickly rewarded, the role of failure is often overlooked. In reality though, failure plays a vital and irreplaceable role in rapid innovation.

The Role of Failure

It may seem counterintuitive, but repeated failures often lead to success. Baba Shiv, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business whose research focuses on innovation in the workplace, states “If you’re trying to solve a problem there are potentially hundreds of possible pathways to take, but only a few are going to lead to the appropriate solution. And the only way to discover that is to try and fail and try again.” Innovation occurs when one learns what works from learning what does not work. Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs fear failure. In turn, they are averse to taking risks, shying away from what could be potential innovation. Even though the concept of learning from one’s mistakes is an old and known one, accepting failure within the workplace is something management constantly struggles with. Probably because the money and time – on part of the employee as well as the employer – cannot be easily quantified in terms of returns from failed attempts. However, according to Patrick Gray, author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology, “For innovation to become embedded in your organizational culture, not only must you learn to fail, but learn to do so early and often.”

Celebrating Failure

One way to inculcate a culture of accepting failure, and thereby promoting innovation is celebrating failure – much like success is celebrated. In an article by Victor Assad, Managing Partner at InnovationOne, Assad writes that certain organization are moving away from ratings, “rack and stack,” (forced ranking of employees) and the once-a-year-performance-review-here-is your-rating-and-pay-raise discussion—and all the destructive competition and hallway grumbling these practices engender. Instead, they are moving towards a continued performance feedback and subsequent recognition system, that doesn’t depend on ratings. If your innovation team is rapidly prototyping and failing, and if their failures are generating a trail of learning for the next innovation, then yes, reward them,” states Assad. It is this failure that leads to an understanding of what works and what doesn’t, ultimately turning what works into the next product or service model. Shiv corroborates this thought, stating that not only should significant successes be celebrated, but smaller ones alongside their failures should be rewarded. After all, breakthrough successes generally happen “after, or in tandem with, incremental ones.” Unfortunately, many leaders today still fear failure. A focus on exploration is hard to justify when companies need to keep their stocks up and pay their dividends. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that without embracing rapid failure and investing efforts into innovation, a competing company is bound to innovate first. As Shiv states, “If you don’t invest in exploration, someone else will, and then you’ll just be licensing or acquiring their know-how.”

Thriving in this sort of environment of rapid failure requires a different skillset from that of the traditional “rack and track” workplace. Thus, management should consider if team members are in the right roles during their failure analysis. Often, they will find that come employees are simply not cut out for innovation-oriented projects, contrary to the goals of a company that is being pushed forward by innovation itself. It is then integral to look for employees who not only survive, but also thrive in an environment of uncertainty; who see failure as an enabler to push technological and innovative borders.

Failure Analysis

Management needs to encourage fast failure, while simultaneously making sure that it doesn’t incur organizational retribution. Trusting a team’s judgement is integral to this, alongside the acceptance that they may sometimes make the wrong choice. Gray lays out a basic analysis process that allows employees to review what worked and what didn’t. As soon as an effort has failed, an objective investigation must take place. This investigation should consider which factors were misjudged, if incorrect resources were assigned, or technologies used that did not fulfill the task. All team members including junior staff that have insight to everyday activities that contributed to the failed effort should be included in this analysis. At all times is key to “regard the failure and its analysis as efforts to move forward, rather than efforts to assign blame or fight old battles.” For example, if an employee was unable to perform a certain task, a new role could be given to that employee, or a structure could be changed to ensure his future success. Ultimately, the failure should be used to learn how to improve and move forward, rather than assign unwarranted blame.

While it can sometimes be a scary thought, failure is what pushes innovation. Humans are naturally predisposed to learn from failure, and it is this learning that encourages the creation of new developments. Companies that don’t allow for failure will never keep up with those that are constantly innovating and exploring. Surely management will hit more dead ends than breakthrough innovations, but quickly assessing and reviewing failed efforts will lead to a cycle of innovation, which will push a company forward in today’s world of technological dynamism.

Photo Credit: jancamilleri Flickr via Compfight cc

This article was first published on FOW Media.

Want to Build a Culture of Innovation? Start with Experimentation

We talk a lot about needing a culture of innovation to thrive amidst digital transformation, but we should take that conversation a step back. A culture of innovation cannot exist without a culture of experimentation. If you want your organization to make the most of digital transformation, your success is going to hinge on your ability to determine what works best for your company.

Modern business is far more competitive and data-reliant than it was in the past, and that means a misstep can set your business back tremendously if a project doesn’t pan out as expected. Testing is crucial to avoid failures and to uncover any hidden potential a project may have. As you move your company toward a digital transformation, testing not only needs to be part of the process—it also needs to be a tenet of your company culture.

Innovation Depends on Experimentation

Someone might come up with a potentially fantastic idea only to have it fall flat in the implementation phase. This can happen due to technical failures, unaccounted contingencies, or unknown variables that only rear their heads once a project has reached a critical point. Even the most innovative idea won’t have legs to stand on without adequate testing. As more companies embrace digital transformation and start making moves to take their organizations into the future, the changes grow more drastic and far-reaching. It is imperative to test new ideas thoroughly before making them part of daily operations. When you work toward building a company culture of experimentation, you naturally encourage innovation.

Building a process for testing is just one part of creating a company culture of experimentation. If you truly want to encourage experimentation, you need to bolster it on an individual basis. Digital transformation is challenging modern companies to rethink their business strategies, project management processes, workforce silos, and departmental structures. Part of digital transformation also needs to be employee-focused at the individual level so that brainstorming, risk-taking, and experimentation become part of every process in your company.

Competition Drives Innovation

Most people know that risk is a large part of business. Some companies shy away from experimentation because of the fear of failure, but the risk of not taking action is similarly destructive. Taking the time to develop a comprehensive testing environment is one of the best ways to encourage risk-taking without the looming shadow of business-crushing failure. When you encourage your workforce to brainstorm new ideas and new ways of doing things, you’ll find that staying competitive and flexible is much easier in the constantly shifting business landscape.

A big part of creating a culture of experimentation is teaching your teams how to celebrate failure. Not every idea will play out as intended, and as long as it only affects a testing environment, that failure becomes teachable data. Pouncing on every new development or offering from your competitors isn’t a good method for encouraging new ideas. If you’re just copying other companies’ ideas, this type of reactionary thinking doesn’t push your company forward.

Taking risks doesn’t seem as daunting when you develop a testing environment and make experimentation part of the everyday routine. Encouraging collaboration, brainstorming, and contributing new ideas at every level of your organization is going to make challenges from competitors feel more like games than obstacles. When your workforce knows that you not only approve of experimentation, but you also encourage it—this will naturally drive your employees to challenge themselves and their old ways of thinking.

Create a New Culture from the Top Down

Getting buy-in from upper management is often one of the most challenging tasks when it comes to getting a new idea off the ground. Some companies’ leadership may be unwilling or hesitant to embrace change, but it’s important for the C-suite to encourage a culture of experimentation and lead by example. Testing is critical to driving motivation. It’s much easier to get buy-in when you roll out a new development in a testing environment, when the risk is minimal.

A thorough testing process can put executives at ease when you propose a new idea, and successful results will naturally lead to more buy-in and approval. A testing environment shouldn’t solely be a tool for placating hesitant executives—it should also be a means of encouraging input and collaboration across every level of the organization. The C-suite should support it, since it will help create a culture of innovation and digital transformation.

Additional Resources on this Topic:

The Role of Failure in Rapid Innovation
Company Culture: The Magic Ingredient You’ve Been Missing
Does Business Agility Depend on Company Culture?

This article was first published on Forbes. 


Why You Should Not Celebrate Failure

“In order to succeed you must fail, so that you know what not to do the next time” – Anthony J D’Angelo

D’Angelo’s words are just one of the many monikers that encourage failure – how else are we meant to learn? We constantly encourage people to take risks and move quickly to innovate – from the get-go Facebook’s motto has been ‘move quickly and break things’. The entrepreneurial dream fetishizes failure, it’s a romantic rite of passage. We spend time poring over case studies of billionaires who have risen, phoenix-like from the ashes of their failures. If this is the blueprint for our success then we need not fear failure – if anything we should seek it out.

The problem with this outlook is that it prioritizes the wrong pieces of the puzzle. We are numbed to a crucial aspect of building a business – fear. We should fear failure, we should fear not ‘making it’ – this is what will keep us going on those late nights, what will help drive us towards our goal.

Losing this sense of anxiety is only one reason why celebrating failure is misguided. Here are a few more:

Celebrate Learning Instead

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed” – Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan’s words are often misquoted to celebrate the value of failure. What they do instead is advocate the importance of learning from mistakes. Failure may be a common byproduct, but it can never be the end-product – it’s only useful if you learn from it.

This is the basis of the ‘lean startup‘ methodology that has quickly become the handbook for many entrepreneurs. Author Eric Ries argues that you should constantly test different approaches and iterate based on your learnings.

Constant experimentation in this fashion ensures we learn from our mistakes and keep our focus firmly on developing as a business or as a person.

Avoid A Culture Of Failure

Career coach Rebecca ‘Kiki’ Weingarten stresses that we are edging towards a dangerous situation. She believes that we’re moving towards a ‘failure society’ where we actively reward those who fail – similar to rewarding people ‘for just showing up’.

This blurs the lines and makes it easy to approach every mistake in the same way. It’s essential that we don’t just gloss over avoidable errors that were due to poor decision making, as this could easily lead to complacency. It’s always nice to get a pat on the back, but we need to make sure that we continue to hold our workforce to a high standard.

Stop Relying On The Easy Excuses

Ultimately failure means that something went wrong.  Celebrating failure gives people an easy excuse and lets them avoid taking responsibility for their actions. If no one is ever held accountable, there is little motivation for employees to give it their all. No one is really invested in their work.

This can be dangerous for organisations. Companies function best when people take ownership of their work – accepting the consequences of failure as well as the plaudits for success. Without this it might be a struggle to keep our workforce engaged. They need to be liable for slip ups but also encouraged to try new approaches – it’s a delicate balance.

This post originally appeared on the Seed Blog

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Workplace Greatness: No Guarantees #TChat Recap

There we were — discussing the factors that make “great” employers so special.

I couldn’t resist asking how organizations on Fortune Magazine’s list of “100 Best Companies to Work For” compare with those featured in Jim Collins‘ best-selling books, Built to Last and From Good to Great.

Similarities? Differences?

Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For

Learn more about the 2014 list

That’s a tough question to answer in a single 30-minute radio show. But this week’s #TChat guest came well prepared. China Gorman, CEO of Great Place to Work Institute, has been crunching numbers to create the 2014 best employers list — and her perspective reflects a lifetime of leadership and HR expertise.

She made a compelling business case

The 100 Best consistently perform 2x better financially than the stock market average
The 100 Best experience up to 65% less voluntary turnover than competitors
Companies returning to this year’s list saw unprecedented growth in 2013.

But even as China shared these facts, back-to-back tweets appeared on the Twitter stream. The first from #TChat regular, Donna Rogers:


The second came from a fresh voice — another Jim Collins (unrelated to the author):


These comments inspired me to dig deeper.

In a follow-up book, How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins (the author) revisited 11 of the 60 companies he had previously profiled as winners. These once “great companies” had stumbled for multiple reasons — from hubris, to overreach, to denial.

The sobering conclusion? Unless fallen companies return to the fundamentals that made them great, death is inevitable.

Two Implications for “Great” Employers Everywhere

1) Greatness can fade fast. Poor decision-making, heavy-handed micro-management, bad expansion bets, products that fail, fluctuating global economics, government regulation (or lack thereof) — many factors conspire to “kill” even the best companies. But the quickest road to ruin comes when organizations lose talent to competitors because employees lose “love” for what they do, who they do it with, and why they’re doing it.

2) Perpetual salvation requires rigorous work. The work that makes companies shine — a focused, flexible business model, a compelling value proposition, a workforce that feels fairly recognized and rewarded – is the same work that keeps them moving forward through peaks and valleys. Business is a non-stop gauntlet of no guarantees — and it never gets any easier.

So, what have we learned? Great is good, if you can get it. But good can also be great, if that’s where longevity lives.

#TChat Week-In-Review: Lessons From Great Workplaces

SAT 1/18:

Watch the Preview hangout now

#TChat Preview: TalentCulture Community Manager, Tim McDonald, framed the week’s topic in a post featuring a “sneak peek” hangout with guest, China Gorman. See the #TChat Preview now: “Best Employers: What Makes Them Work?

SUN 1/19: Post: TalentCulture CEO, Meghan M. Biro explored the connection between employee engagement and business performance in her weekly column. Read “Happy Employees = Hefty Profits.”


How Great Companies Attract Top Talent” — by China Gorman
Your Corporate Culture: What’s Inside?” — by Dr. Nancy Rubin


Listen to the #TChat Radio replay!

WED 1/22:
#TChat Radio: Hosts Meghan M. Biro and I talked with China Gorman about what makes “Best Companies to Work For” so special. Listen to the #TChat Radio replay now

#TChat Twitter: Immediately following the radio show, Meghan, China and I joined the TalentCulture community on the #TChat Twitter stream for a dynamic open conversation, centered on 5 related questions. See highlights in the Storify slideshow below:

#TChat Insights: “Best” Employers: What Makes Them Work?

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Closing Notes & What’s Ahead

GRATITUDE: Thanks again to China Gorman for sharing your perspectives of effective workplace environments. We value your time, your expertise and your commitment to the TalentCulture community!

NOTE TO BLOGGERS: Did this week’s events prompt you to write about workplace culture issues? We welcome your thoughts. Post a link on Twitter (include #TChat or @TalentCulture), or insert a comment below, and we’ll pass it along.

WHAT’S AHEAD: Our month of forward-thinking #TChat Events continues on Wednesday, January 29, when we explore the impact of pervasive technology on modern recruiting. We’ll be joined by top executives from Dice, the career hub for tech, so save the date, and prepare to share your questions and opinions!

Meanwhile, the TalentCulture conversation continues daily on the #TChat Twitter stream, our LinkedIn discussion group, and elsewhere on social media.

We’ll see you on the stream!

Image Credit: WIkipedia