In the 1990s, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson found that effective teams make more mistakes than their less successful counterparts because they are able to admit to errors, learn from them and move on.
Based on her findings, Edmondson developed the concept of psychological safety: creating a culture where employees feel able to take interpersonal risks such as owning up to mistakes and sharing ideas without fearing ridicule or blame.
When people feel psychologically safe, there are benefits for individuals, teams and organisations.
Building a psychologically safe workplace:
When we are under threat, our nervous systems are hardwired to stop thinking creatively and strategically. If we’re faced with a serious physical risk, this ‘fight or flight’ reaction is generally a good thing – but unfortunately our brains respond to social threats, such as eye-rolling, unjustified criticism and dismissive comments, in the same way.
Experiencing shame in the workplace and operating in an environment where we can’t admit to mistakes will trigger exactly that physical response.
Building shame resilience can help individuals recognise shame and its triggers, create critical awareness and the ability to reach out to others, as well as speaking about it. But over the long-term, shaming becomes demotivating and undermines team performance.
On the flipside, we also experience a physical reaction to positive emotions. Barbara Fredrickson of the University of California found that emotions such as trust, curiosity, confidence and inspiration all flood the brain with oxytocin (which drives creativity) and dopamine (which triggers our reward system and drives us to achieve).
Teams and managers
Teams of creative individuals operating in a challenging, but not threatening, environment achieve much more than the sum of their parts.
Line managers have a very significant role to play in creating psychological safety, both in terms of setting the culture for their team, and in managing in a psychologically safe way.
The author and academic Brené Brown said: “You cannot shame or belittle someone into changing their behaviour”, and this is an important message for leaders.
We’ve already seen the impact on individuals of social threats and positive behaviours, and psychological safety also boosts collective team productivity.
In 2016, Google’s Project Aristotle followed the progress of hundreds of teams around the world. It found that those with high levels of psychological safety typically exceeded their targets by 17%.
Creating an organisational culture that enables leaders to show vulnerability and opens up individuals’ willingness to learn from mistakes is an important backdrop for psychological safety.
A survey of 12,000 employees found that employees are more likely to be creative, dedicated and willing to go ‘above and beyond’ when managers show vulnerability.
But vulnerability doesn’t always come easily to managers who are used to a command-and-control style of leadership. It is better to take time and develop an authentic, open style rather than attempt to fake it.
As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, I urge you to explore how to make your business psychologically safe. Develop leaders’ ability to show vulnerability and enhance their understanding of psychological safety.
Most importantly, create a culture where high-performing teams are capable of owning up to mistakes without the risk of ‘blame and shame’.
Wolfgang Seidl is a doctor of medicine and partner at Mercer, leading the Workplace Health Consulting for UK and Europe.
In support of Mental Health Awareness Week every day this week HR magazine will be publishing an article tackling the theme of loneliness in the workplace - find more tips on mental wellbeing here. See professional guidance from Mental Health UK here.