Is silence always golden? Creating a psychologically safe environment

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I was recently watching a highly gripping scene from the US drama Succession. The scene involves a team meeting in which the leader proposes a plan which clearly no one supports, but which no one dares openly oppose or challenge. The scene is tense and uncomfortable because the team’s silence intimates their support for the proposal, while they all know one another’s actual negative opinions of the proposal.

The overpowering control the leader has over his team results in them not only being silent but even insincerely agreeing with the leader’s proposal. The fear of speaking out is obvious to all – perhaps even the leader. The anguish and tension in the room are palpable. The impact is that the leader’s ‘bad’ decision is adhered to with everyone left feeling worried, stressed, and belittled.

This is an extreme scene but it made me think of the term ‘psychological safety’ – something that these people clearly did not feel they had – and what this means in the real world. Psychological safety is recognised as being crucial to a team and organisation in order to have openness, diversity of thought, productive conflict with enhanced thinking, and decision making. It is about people feeling safe and confident to be open and honest, to voice ideas, opinions and concerns, to try new things out and make mistakes all without the risk of any repercussions (clearly something not happening in the team meeting in Succession).

As a manager, how can you develop a psychologically safe environment to encourage your individual team members’ critical and diverse thinking and avoid mediocrity through consensus and ‘group think’? How do you enable people to speak up? How can you ensure each team member feels comfortable and confident in sharing their views, even if they are counter to yours and their peers?

Here are a few tips:

  1. Build trust – this is paramount, especially when working in a hybrid environment, with team members potentially working in different locations, timezones, and cultures. Trust can be developed through a number of routes, for example:
  2. Raise your self-awareness to be able to flex your approach and behaviour to connect better with people. This can be done by actively seeking feedback and making it easy for individuals to give you feedback by receiving it appropriately. The 3 A’s feedback model may be helpful for this: Ask (for feedback), Accept (the feedback at face value), Act (take action in response).
  3. Likewise, providing helpful feedback to individuals and encouraging them to do the same with each other will raise their self-awareness of their impact on others and give them the knowledge and ability to change.
  4. Be honest and be vulnerable – say if you don’t know something or you don’t know how to do something. You don’t need to have all the answers. No one has all the answers. This is why you have a team – to help problem solve and come up with ideas and solutions. ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ (Aristotle)
  5. Deal with unacceptable behaviour – not dealing with it sends a message out that it is acceptable and behaviour can breed behaviour.
  6. Likewise, deal with conflict appropriately. Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. Productive conflict and disagreement are crucial to ensure all perspectives and areas have been explored. It is how conflict is managed that is key.
  7. Demonstrate empathy through curiosity, listening, and questioning, so you can understand where the other person is coming from and respond appropriately.
  8. Be clear on expectations, so that there are no surprises. Ensure goals and their outcomes are clearly articulated.
  9. Keep checking in with the team and individuals alike.
  10. Celebrate success. Look for opportunities to acknowledge, reflect on, and share individual and team success stories and their impact on the organisation. Focusing on these can help develop motivation and productivity. Recognition for people’s contributions shows you value them, which is another way to develop trust.

The ‘climate’ of your team starts with you as a leader. How you approach and react to people and situations contributes to the extent to which the team feels psychologically safe, which in turn can impact their well-being. A team that feels psychologically safe encourages creativity, innovation, and growth. To what extent are you creating this kind of environment?


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