Build better teams by ensuring psychological safety

Is it acceptable to make errors? Absolutely! Embrace them. As a leader, fostering an environment where everyone feels free to err cultivates a culture of fearlessness, boosting employee contentment, mental well-being, productivity, and achievement.

Mavie editorial team18/11/2022

Build better teams

Is it acceptable to make errors? Absolutely!

Guess which teams make more mistakes: the teams that feel psychologically safe at work, are well taken care of and understood? Or is there a higher error rate found in workplaces with low psychological safety? The answer might be a surprise: the “safe” teams make more mistakes! This was discovered by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson in her study on team performance in US hospitals. And there’s more: the higher the number of error reports, the better the performance of the team.

Psychological safety means being able to discuss mistakes openly

So the question remains: how can a team make more mistakes and still achieve better performance? The explanation is simple: employees who feel psychologically safe in their team do not make more mistakes – they just talk about them openly instead of hiding their slip-ups and ignoring errors. And this open approach to mistakes in turn promotes learning, team development, mental health in the workplace and innovation. In other words, it’s not about doing everything right and perfectly – which is impossible, anyway – it’s about handling errors at work in a constructive way.

High development potential in a fear-free environment

The difference between teams that speak openly about errors and those that don’t can be explained in terms of psychological safety. In her book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth (2020), Harvard professor Amy Edmondson makes a clear distinction between an “anxiety-free environment” and a “feel-good environment”.

“Psychological safety describes a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. For example, asking for help, admitting a mistake or criticising a project. This doesn’t mean an easy-going atmosphere where everybody is always giving each other a pat on the back”

Here is how to create a psychologically safe working environment

Organisations and managers profit tremendously when employees have the courage to speak up. This can only happen if there is trust and confidence instead of a diffuse fear and anxiety. Here is how you can create good conflict management and ensure that employees trust you and feel psychologically safe:

  • Say yes to ideas: involve employees with their ideas and suggestions in a respectful way. This also includes the ability to listen with true interest.
  • Say yes to mistakes: communicate to your team that mistakes are a good way to learn and are not a sign of failure. Set a good example yourself: take responsibility for mistakes and work towards solutions.
  • Say no to blame: psychological safety and good conflict management come about when the focus is on finding solutions, not assigning blame.
  • Say yes to reflection: be prepared to question the status quo on a regular basis. Reflect on your own skill set and your own way of thinking and acting.

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