Leading your team through change at work can be fun…
… just as working out how to influence people to deliver positive outcomes for your stakeholders can be energising. Personally, I’ve found that working in environments where people can be their best selves at work, and where managers tap into people’s interest in doing good quality work, is good for the soul.
But some conditions can make that work easier or harder…
I was recently listening to a podcast on the concept of psychological safety. I find this idea fascinating because I’ve worked in places where it’s the norm, and I’ve worked in places where it’s definitely not. And I know which setting I thrive in!
Safe to fail… on the way to improving
Amy Edmondson is a Harvard Business School researcher who first coined the term “psychological safety” in the 1990s. She’d noticed that the most cohesive teams in a hospital were reporting making more errors than other, less cohesive teams. This was the opposite of what she was expecting to find. She theorised that this was due to them being more comfortable reporting errors, rather than that they were in fact making more errors. She then went on to test and confirm her theory.
And almost 20 years’ later, after investing lots of money and years of time to research what makes a high performing team, Google found that psychological safety is the number one factor for high performance.
These findings resonate strongly with my personal experience. I’ve worked in and with a range of teams and organisations. The teams where I have been most productive, and have performed at my best, are those where there is a culture of psychological safety.
In my experience, I have felt psychologically safe when:
- I know my team-mates will assume the best when I share my mistakes. We all understand it’s so that we can all learn from each other, and others won’t make the same mistakes
- My manager will openly share mistakes they’ve made – and how they’ve learned from them
- My manager, and team-mates, encourage and are open to constructive feedback on their work, and the team’s work. Everyone is encouraged to add value to other people’s work in the spirit of getting the best outcome for the team.
- Healthy disagreement is actively encouraged – it’s seen as a way of making the most of the whole team’s strengths and talents.
Candid feedback is particularly important during organisational change
Psychological safety is critical when trying to facilitate workplace change in a way which enables people to thrive.
- When planning and asking “how ready are we for change”? Are leaders and managers comfortable having their ideas challenged? Are there mechanisms to seek and reflect on how things are working in practice? Do staff feel comfortable speaking up?
- Are we able to adapt our plan based on how things are actually working? While it’s good to have a plan, it’s important that leaders are open to candid feedback from people on the ground – we need to be alert to the possibility of unintended consequences, and adjust the plan if required.
- Getting comfortable with discomfort – paradoxically, creating a psychologically safe working environment requires a leader or manager to be comfortable with getting uncomfortable or awkward feedback. And remembering that not all feedback will be able to be taken on board. It requires someone who is able to listen, reflect and then act according to data and experience. And manage disagreements and differences of opinion fairly and transparently – without them becoming emotionally fraught.
How to create a psychologically safe working environment in 3 steps – even if you don’t work in one right now
I’m really interested in how managers can create that environment and enable their teams to thrive. I found the advice in this Forbes article from Karlyn Borysenko interesting:
1. Change how you think about failure
Last year I was introduced to the idea of thinking about initiatives as “prototypes” – that is, testing an idea with the aim of “failing early to learn quickly” . I’ve found having this mindset changes my thoughts from “I hope this doesn’t fail” to “let’s try it and see what we can learn”
2. Always offer the benefit of the doubt to others
When dealing with others at work you can’t control what they think of you, but you can control how you perceive others. Psychological safety is different to trust, but they’re connected. People are more likely to be positively disposed to us if they believe we’re positively disposed to them – so put on those rose-tinted glasses!
3. Know that you can always get another job
This one might seem easier thought than done. But having made a couple of major changes in my career in the last few years (and in that process having met many others who have done the same) – I know I’ll always be ok.
About the author
Clare Mullen is the founder of Positively Leading Change and has over 20+ years experience planning and implementing change and managing the stakeholder communications for organisations both in Australia and the United Kingdom. She is passionate about motivating and engaging people in continuous business and organisational improvement.
With a Master’s in marketing, Clare is also an accredited change management practitioner, has been trained in project management and has completed training in Gestalt psychotherapy
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