Learning To Create Psychological Safety


Psychological safety is a hot topic.  Amy Edmondson introduced the term in her exceptional book ‘Teaming’.  It is a critical foundation for any effective team.   When psychological safety is present, team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.  This includes being willing to say I don’t know or I was wrong.  To be willing to invite criticism from others because you know it will make our ideas better.

This sounds very appealing but it is difficult to do.  We have to risk being seen as ignorant, incompetent or disruptive.  So how do we create an environment that is psychologically safe?  Amy Edmondson says “Psychological safety is not something that can be changed by mandate or decree from the top. Instead, it’s a pervasive aspect of the climate that takes shape as a consequence of two factors—the frames and behaviors of local leaders and the daily behaviors and interactions among peers working together.”

How can we safely practice taking personal risks?

In essence, leaders must show the way and encourage others to exhibit the behaviors associated with a psychologically safe environment.  It is easy to talk about this, but how can we practice?  Few people are willing to risk looking stupid or upsetting those around them.  Without practice, psychological safety is a nice idea that will never become the norm in the workplace.  So how can we create a safe space to practice?

This is a question we have been working on for a while at Oyster and we are excited about an idea we are trying out.  We started by asking ‘how can we create an environment that is personally risky but also safe enough for leaders and team members to learn together’.  We settled on using improv.  Improv requires each participant to take personal risks; to participate fully.  It also requires each person to put aside their own agenda and connect to the others in the group.  Both are key skills involved in creating psychological safety.

A breakthrough in learning to generate psychological safety

Our trial workshop with a Portland design firm was a great success.  The participants were able to describe how they would use their learning to positive effect back in the work environment.  What was most exciting?  We didn’t tell them anything about psychological safety in the workshop.  And yet, they described how they will generate psychological safety in their work environment.  They know what they will do, and this is the breakthrough we have been looking for.

Our next workshop takes place in April as part of Design Week Portland.  We are excited to work with a group of design leaders to help them learn how to create a psychologically safe environment.

What are you doing to create a psychologically safe environment for your team?  I would love to hear from you.  If you need help, let’s chat.