Psychological Safety

I have been reading Matthew Syed’s new book “Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking”.  It’s a great book showing how many groups often lack diverse views (“cognitive diversity”) and are therefore prone to collective blind spots; and how “game changing” innovations often require the recombination of ideas from different fields… which in turn necessitate input from those with diverse knowledge and experience. (Here)

Further, Syed explains, that of the many dynamics that can frustrate such “open thinking” is the way that leaders can dominate – which may inhibit team members from making contributions that could appear counter the position of the leader – I won’t spoil the book further as Syed explains it all beautifully.

This type of scenario demonstrates a lack of “psychological safety” – and such a lack of psychological safety can prevent team members from speaking up even in life threatening situations… or may make them fearful of making errors.

Here’s a definition: Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn 1990, p. 708). In “psychologically safe teams”, team members feel accepted and respected.

One of the traits of a “mindful leader” is that they have increased openness and empathy – so that they may listen to the views of others and may consider opposing points of view in an open and objective way… and even reflect on what may lie behind a colleague’s comments and actions – especially if they process a point of view that the leader may have overlooked or may never have been exposed to.   A mindful leader should not be defensive – but grateful for such contributions which may or may not cause them adjust their thinking.  The important issue is that team members should be encouraged to contribute and not feel inhibited.  (I have written before how such “surface acting” – the need to suppress your own views in order to conform – causes employees to have very low job satisfaction (here).

Research has shown that teams with mindful team-members are more effective and more likely to collaborate towards achieving team goals – and now we can see that such teams, with empathy and openness, exhibit increased psychological safety and therefore leverage the inputs from the whole team…  eliminating blind spots and increasing buy-in.

Even if a leader is dominant –  and not at all mindful – then in some situations safety may require that the concerns of team members are shared; so even the most dictatorial leader should regularly ask each member of his team about any issues that have arisen so far…  and especially to share any concerns they may have about the future of the enterprise.  It doesn’t fix the leadership style – but it could save lives.

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