Psychological Safety

EP 20

Leading complex improvement requires learning, making mistakes, offering alternative perspectives and asking when we aren’t sure about the next steps. To enable this, we need a safe platform for interpersonal risk-taking. In this episode, Simon hones in on the interpersonal construct of Psychological Safety. He explores its importance to team effectiveness and unpacks simple approaches to enhance it with the people you work with.


One important dimension of teamwork that’s coming up over and over again in my work is the need to be aware of and to actively build psychological safety. Now, I think we’ve had a long history in education of having meaningful conversations about relational trust and it’s important to teamwork and to school improvement. But one interpersonal construct that’s emerged in organisational safety, sorry, in organisational psychology that’s particularly useful for us in education and gets to a little bit more precision than the broad term of trust, is psychological safety. Now, organisational behavioural scientist, Amy Edmondson, based at Harvard University, is the key academic who’s introduced and developed this interpersonal construct and she really focused on team psychological safety and defines it as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. And in some of her indicators of psychological safety, she focuses on that.

Teams that are psychologically safe discuss difficult issues and problems. They ask other members of the team for help. They talk about mistakes and ways to prevent them. They’re not rejected for taking an alternative position. They feel free to share their ideas and expertise and they feel safe to take intellectual risks. In my work with teams, we’re increasingly finding that placing an explicit focus on being aware of levels of psychological safety and then seeking to actively enhance them is a really powerful way for building a platform for better team thinking, learning and action. I often just simplify this space and say, Hey, in this team, is it safe to do these three things? One, ask for help. Two, admit a mistake. Three, offer an alternative. No wonder how you’d rate the psychological safety of your current team. We’ve had a strong focus often on do we have alignment in strategy? You know, are we working well and holding people to account? But actually when we’re working on complex things, we, there’s a fair amount of uncertainty and ambiguity, and we’re often working outside our sort of confident repertoire of what we already need know how to do, or in territory that we already know how to navigate. Psychological safety is going to be absolutely crucial because it’s gonna allow us to learn to progress and to innovate together.

So wonder what behaviours you think would signal that psychological safety is lacking in a group where might you have found yourself in the past or currently in a team where you didn’t feel safe to ask for help. You thought, Hey, I’m a professional. I should already know this. Or admit a mistake. A certain thing you were trying wasn’t having the impact that you wanted or offer an alternative. You had a different idea to what other key members of the team, or even the highest ranking in a hierarchical position sense of the team was saying, and you felt like, oh no, he’s already decided on that. Well, she’s already decided on that. You know, it’s not gonna go down. Well, if I throw out an alternative position, actively building psychological safety is gonna be one of those things for leaders that can have compounding and residual positive impacts. And I think we need to move it beyond just being an explanatory variable of why sometimes we might act or not act in a certain way and bring it to the fore as something that we intentionally reflect on and actively try to enhance. I think psychological safety can absolutely provide the backbone for groups that are doing complex challenging work that is gonna need a lot of learning iteration and shared diverse perspectives to get there. I think it’s time to bring psychological safety to the fore in the work of our educational leadership and teacher teams.

Well, thanks for joining me. I hope you’re getting a huge amount of value out of these ideas. One last request before you go. I genuinely appreciate it if you could subscribe, rate, and review this show. It’s one of the easiest ways for us to get these ideas into the hands of even more educational leaders.

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