Psychological safety is “the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk‑taking… feeling able to speak up with relevant ideas, questions or concerns. It is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able – even obligated – to be candid” (Amy Edmondson, 2019).
This definition is deceptively simple and the ramifications are profound.
Think of the organisations, project teams and leaders you know. How many demonstrate a disconnect between aspiration and reality? They want to be known for delivering great results and finding creative solutions. Yet many get stuck because of invisible dynamics that play out daily.
You see it when a team member keeps quiet, even though they know something is wrong. You see it when a contractor doesn’t mention a different way of working in case they get laughed at. And you see it in board and team meetings where groupthink prevails.
When psychological safety is low, we secretly fear being punished, humiliated or ostracised for speaking the truth as we see it. Low psychological safety gets in the way of team performance, project delivery and personal success.
Psychological safety is the key enabler of a high‑performance culture
Psychological safety is not soft or about being nice. It is about creating a climate that is characterised by trust and respect so that people feel safe to take interpersonal risks.
Risk management gets lots of attention in projects. But its main focus is on risks ‘out there’. How much time do you spend talking, or even explicitly thinking, about personal risk? I’m talking about what each of us personally sees, and experiences, as risky in our dealings with others. For example, what do you do with that momentary thought – ‘dare I push back?’ – when the finance director challenges your figures at a project board meeting? Do you stop to consider possibilities, or do you rule it out immediately?
Whatever your answer to the question, ‘dare I push back?’, I suspect you’ll gain additional insight through considering your response in the context of mindsets.
Growth mindset v fixed mindset
The term ‘growth mindset’ was coined by psychologist Carol Dweck. It explains why some people love learning and embrace new challenges, while others, those with a ‘fixed mindset’, are wary of new challenges and actively avoid them.
At its simplest, people with a fixed mindset believe that human qualities such as intellectual skills are carved in stone: you either have them or you don’t. This belief brings “an urgency to prove yourself… it simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient”. People with a fixed mindset tend to evaluate every situation with questions like: will I succeed or fail? Will I be accepted or rejected? They are fearful of new challenges.
People with a growth mindset believe that human qualities can be cultivated through effort, strategies and help from others. Everyone can change and grow through application and experience. This brings a completely different attitude to success and failure. Success is about growing and developing. Failure is something you learn from – it’s vital for future growth. New challenges are to be embraced, not avoided.
Think about yourself – at work, at home, with your family, with hobbies. Where do you have a growth mindset and where do you have a fixed mindset? Now think about your projects. What is encouraged and what are you encouraging? Can you see how that relates to psychological safety? Psychological safety is a group phenomenon. We need to actively cultivate it.
Psychological safety is a pre‑requisite for creativity, collaboration and learning. Without it, we inadvertently trigger avoidance behaviours and add to the complexity of delivery. Psychological safety is dynamic and emergent – it depends very much on what is going on in the external environment, who is in the team and what is happening for them.
A growth mindset culture
Both psychological safety and a growth mindset culture need deliberate fostering.
When we understand how the human brain works, it becomes obvious that creating and nurturing psychological safety, ie a fear‑free environment, is key to successful project delivery – no matter your job title.
This means learning to recognise and contain your emotions in order to: be better able to contain the emotions of those you interact with directly and indirectly; be better equipped to read the situation clearly; be less likely to trigger a threat response in others; and be able to respond flexibly to retrieve the situation on the occasions when you do.
Emotions are contagious, and stress can quickly force things to get out of hand. Put all this together and the bottom line is clear. If you’re not intentionally nurturing psychological safety, the way the human brain works means that you will unwittingly be making a VUCA world more VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), reducing the chances of successful delivery.
Whatever your role, you need the skills to counter the pull to complexity.
This blog is an edited extract of a longer article from the spring 2022 edition of Project journal, an exclusive benefit for APM members.
Read more in Carole Osterweil’s new book, Neuroscience for Project Success: Why people behave as they do