Unlocking Team Success With Psychological Safety - SACAP
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Unlocking Team Success with Psychological Safety: It’s not that easy

Jun 08, 2023 | By Dr Lauren Martin
Team working hard at success
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Whether you’re a team leader, manager, or individual contributor, understanding the importance of psychological safety can help you unlock your team’s full potential and achieve greater success. Google’s Project Aristotle uncovered the secret of successful teams. The study found that psychological safety was the primary contributor to successful and effective teams.

What is Psychological Safety?

It’s a safe team environment where everyone feels respected, valued, and free to collaborate and share their opinions without consequence or judgement. This doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with each other, but rather that there is a mutual understanding and respect for each other’s perspectives.

Simply being put in a group, doesn’t mean teamwork is happening and certainly doesn’t mean it’s psychologically safe. 

“Our circumstances often do not prepare us to create psychologically safe environments.”

In education, within the western culture, in our society of inequality, poverty, unemployment – this notion of survival of the fittest, “it’s you or me” breeds individual efforts and competition.

Often our natural instinct is to be self-sufficient, independent, self-reliant – to get a job, a promotion, to remain relevant, to get selected for programmes, to win a project – you need to prove that you are better than the rest.

The reality is when we are individually focused it is difficult to collaborate and it’s difficult to create an environment of psychological safety. When an environment is not psychologically safe, it perpetuates the need to remain individually focused.

In other words, working in teams or collaborating often doesn’t come naturally especially given our circumstances.

Can you relate?

When environments are psychologically unsafe, it often triggers fear or insecurity. If I share my idea or contribution with a team or group, there may be the fear of:

  • Not being accepted, being supported or being heard
  • Failure, not getting it right or that the idea may have flaws
  • Vulnerability
  • Not being good enough
  • Not being recognised or given credit for your work
  • Being judged
  • Competition… that someone can do it better
  • Sharing our idea and someone else taking it
  • Receiving feedback
  • Not being in control

In psychologically unsafe environments it is easier to remain individually focused – resisting actively contributing to teamwork. It feels easier to:

  • Be self-reliant – “I can do it myself”
  • Withdraw or avoid collaborating at all costs
  • Remain silent
  • Keep ideas to yourself
  • Directly compete with others
  • Think and work in silos
  • Be territorial around our ideas and work

“Have you contributed to a psychologically unsafe environment for your team? Have others created this for you?”

Psychologically unsafe teams

When the environment is psychologically safe, you should have a sense of urgency, a need, an excitement to share your ideas and contribution with your team so others can add, change, edit and make it better. When psychological safety is present, we are more willing to contribute our own ideas, we are willing to share, we are willing to learn and we are willing to have a voice. The idea that more perspectives, more skill sets, and more ideas can make an original idea better for the success of the team or organisation.

How can organisations create psychologically safe environments and embed this into their company culture?

Leon Aucamp, SACAP’s General Manager, shares his personal experiences of creating psychologically safe teams. “There are so many perspectives on psychologically safe environments, but my experiences have taught me to hold onto the following primary aspects:

  • Creating this type of environment is not a nice to have, but a necessity.
  • Staff culture in any organisation can only thrive in an honest, transparent and safe environment.
  • Trust from staff members doesn’t happen overnight and needs to be nurtured by open communication where staff don’t feel judged, or fear being reprimanded for honesty.
  • Staff keep their eyes on their leaders and will emulate empathy and vulnerability if they experience this from their leaders.
  • Leaders must promote diversity and inclusion in the organisation, as all experiences enhance and shape our perspectives.
  • Self-care and work life balance is crucial but needs to be driven from management who should set the example.
  • When staff members feel supported and cared for, they are more likely to tap into their creativity and be highly effective in their work.”

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