Can your team be too psychologically safe?

 Profile image of Corine Hines From Spring Leadership

Corine Hines

Back in 2010, when I was just starting my coaching journey, I began seeing how powerful the process was for individuals. I’ve worked with all types of leaders and managers, from underrated heads of finance and recently recruited high potentials, to directors that were heading for burn out.  Watching them grow, develop better habits and improve their relationships, was incredible. But I was itching to have more impact on the wider business.

Personal transformations are amazing – but I knew that high performing teams aren’t created because one person transforms themselves.

Over the years we’ve developed an approach that helps individuals and teams make huge leaps forward – transformations that set them up for future success, which make a significant difference to them personally and to the bottom line.

Our techniques change businesses for the better. And it’s an absolute privilege to be involved.

Working alongside Steve sometimes meant ‘robust discussions’ which could get a little shouty. Of course, we were trying to get the best results for our clients and occasionally we’d disagree.

Turns out I was right about 90% of the time.

Ha! Steve is sunning himself on a climbing wall right now so I can say what I like. 😊

We benefitted from these noisy disagreements and sometimes I listen to senior teams being perfectly pleasant to each other and wonder what’s not being said.

Then people complain to me afterwards about a decision that’s been made or the way the meeting was chaired.

They don’t feel enough Psychological Safety in the team.

So they don’t share their views more openly.

This is not a new concept, in 1965 big thinkers Edgar Shein and Warren Bennis described it as: “providing an atmosphere where one can take chances without fear and with sufficient protection.”

If there is psychological safety in a team it enables you to:

•    Feel included
•    Learn
•    Contribute
•    Challenge the status quo

Below are answers to the questions about psychological safety you’re desperate to know –  but were too afraid to ask!

Is it possible for things to be too psychologically safe?

It’s often less about how safe people feel and more about how clear the team are on what is acceptable. If the team feel very safe in telling sexist jokes – we don’t need them to feel less safe, instead we need the bar raised on what is OK and what isn’t.

And if you value ‘getting on well’ you may want to check out whether you’re encouraging debate and disagreement. You might need to bump up against each other in service of innovative solutions and decision making when you’re operating in a fast-paced environment. That doesn’t mean you have to compromise trust in the team.

How can we hold people to account and maintain psychological safety? 

Expecting your team members to deliver what they’ve agreed is not something to shy away from. In fact if you put off crucial conversations you can expect everyone on the team to be impacted. And eventually this will undermine results and no one will feel safe.

Being clear what good looks like as a team will help, and so will perfecting your feedback skills.

This book is a great start: Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behaviour 

Isn’t it all just Political Correctness?

I’m assuming you believe it’s right to be sensitive to other people’s views and feelings, and that respect is important in a team.

And given that you are giving each other permission to be yourselves you’ll want to avoid language or behaviour that will deliberately demean, belittle, or ridicule others.

But how that looks will vary from team to team. Remember how I described the robust disagreements in team Steve & Corine?

It all starts with a conversation about what needs to be in place so you can contribute fully in this team.

Where should I start?

You might want to run a short survey and ask your team to rate their experience in the team. You can create your own survey using the questions psychological safety guru Amy Edmondson suggests. Or contact me to book a chat about this subject and measuring your culture more generally.