5 degree change

Build habits to be a champion of Psychological Safety within your teams

Olof Ekman
Aug 27, 2021

Recently a fellow coach invited me to design a new program to help high-performing teams take better care of themselves to increase performance and lower turnover. We did not know each other that well and had never worked together before, but we had enough in common to assume we would compliment each other well enough to be able to create something cool. And we did. The 1-Month Well-Being Experiment for High Performing Teams is the most comprehensive and impactful program I’ve ever been involved in developing. But it was also one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. 

As we started to collaborate on this program, we quickly realized we were just as different as we were similar in our ways of thinking, working, and communicating, which produced quite a bit of tension, clenched jaws, and frustration. But not all the time. Sometimes we were in a flow, building on each other’s ideas. 

We had two modes of working, one grumpy and frustrating and the other fun and creative. And the difference between these two modes was drastic. When things were running smoothly, I felt great, enjoyed the work, felt super creative, and was open to my partner’s ideas.

But then we would start to argue about something silly like the colors in the presentation, and from there it was a downhill spiral. I wanted to give up and go back to my safe solopreneur life where I get to decide everything myself. 

As we jumped back and forth between these modes, I could start to recognize the two different feelings in my body, and the best way to summarize it would be open and closed. 

During the program, we explore the topic of psychological safety and let the team play around with various ways to prioritize and increase it within their team. If it’s a new term for you, here’s how it’s defined on Wikipedia:

Psychological safety is being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status, or career. It can be defined as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected.

Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder gives a good example here of how psychological safety plays a role in their creative process:

But it’s not just creativity that takes a toll when psychological safety is low, mental health does too. Not being able to express yourself can lead you to shutting down and losing trust in yourself. Feeling alone in a place where you’re meant to feel connected can bring on symptoms of despair and depression.

While learning more about psychological safety, I started to see that it was also playing a role in the relationship with my partner. In certain areas, we trusted each other, in others we didn’t, and then we shut down, became tense, and it was almost impossible to create something together. When this happened, we had to take a break to reflect and start over the next day with renewed energy. But along the way, we started to see a few things that helped us stay open, sympathetic, and respectful. It required effort but was always worth it. 

Here are a few things that helped and have shown to be important for teams who want to increase psychological safety: 

Letting go and trusting the other person

Sound simple? It rarely is but you always feel better once you do. And what’s great about it is that it is something you have control over. I have a 2-year old daughter who is determined to do everything herself, including her breakfast cereal. It’s really hard not to step in and help her pour the milk, but the reward is that she feels trusted, allowed to make mistakes, and free to explore her boundaries. And the price for not letting go is a potential tantrum that can easily ruin 3 people’s mornings. Letting go and choosing trust is a practice that is hard in the beginning but comes with such a sweet reward that it can quickly become a new habit if you stick to it. What’s something you are ready to let go of? 

Listen with intent

There was a clear pattern to when things would go sour; I stopped listening! When my partner was talking I was completely in my head judging and thinking about comebacks instead of trying to understand what was actually being said. The times I caught myself doing this and managed to convince myself to listen instead my whole attitude and posture changed. When you really listen to someone, you have to be curious and open, otherwise, you won’t hear. This shift then stays with you and I felt that I could start to open up again. Listening with intent is of course a hard habit to build but that pays off big-time once established. How could you start to listen with intent more? 

Reply with “Yes and…”

This was an exercise I learned in an ideation workshop once and I still use it. What we learned was that to have great ideas, you need many ideas. You need to build on each other and create a space where anything is possible to have many ideas. When someone suggests something and you reply with “Yes and...”, they feel heard and supported and you build on their idea/thought which creates shared ownership and trust. Next time you are in a meeting and someone suggests something, try replying with “Yes and…” and see what happens.

Want to learn more about how to increase and maintain psychological safety within your teams and culture? Me and Alexandra Philipona are hosting a free workshop on the 23rd of September where we will talk about how psychological safety impacts team well-being, performance & creativity and share more tips on how to increase psychological safety within your team. Sign up here.

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