Psychological Safety in Crafting Strategy

Explore the importance of psychological safety for effective strategy formation and decision making

Blog Post
April 23, 2024

What is Psychological Safety?

The concept of psychological safety has gained significant importance in strategy formation and decision-making processes. It refers to a shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Cultivating an environment where psychological safety thrives can dramatically improve team dynamics and outcomes.

Developed by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is considered a critical factor in fostering an environment where employees feel comfortable expressing themselves without fear of negative repercussions. This sense of security encourages open communication, creativity, and collaboration.

In a psychologically safe environment, team members are more likely to share diverse perspectives and challenge the status quo, which can lead to more innovative solutions and better decision-making. It allows individuals to focus on collective goals rather than self-protection, thereby enhancing overall team performance.

Psychological safety is not about being nice or avoiding conflict; rather, it is about creating a culture where people feel safe enough to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. This environment supports learning and growth, as individuals are more willing to admit mistakes and learn from them.

Why Psychological Safety is Critical for Strategy Formation

In any organization, the foundation for robust strategy formation and effective decision-making rests on the bedrock of psychological safety. When team members feel safe to express their thoughts, ideas, and concerns without fear of ridicule or punishment, they contribute more openly and creatively. This dynamic enhances collective thinking, leading to more comprehensive and well-rounded strategies.

Consider the transformation in the airline industry with the implementation of Crew Resource Management (CRM). CRM emerged in the late 1970s as a direct response to a series of high-profile accidents where cockpit hierarchies and miscommunication played fatal roles. The traditional, often authoritarian structure stifled co-pilots and other crew members from voicing concerns or suggesting alternatives.

CRM introduced a seismic shift by fostering a culture where every team member, regardless of rank, was encouraged to speak up and participate actively in decision-making processes. Pilots and crew members were trained to communicate openly, share information freely, and collaborate effectively without fear of retribution. This new approach hinged on the principles of psychological safety, enabling a more inclusive environment where diverse viewpoints and expertise could converge.

The results were significant. The implementation of CRM not only improved safety records but also enhanced operational efficiency. Flight crews were better equipped to handle emergencies, make critical decisions on the fly (no pun intended), and adapt strategies in real-time. The aviation industry’s success with CRM underscores the vital importance of psychological safety in strategy formation and decision-making.

Translating this to other sectors, it’s evident that when teams operate under the assurance that their contributions are valued and their voices heard, they can collaboratively develop stronger, innovation-driven strategies. Psychological safety paves the way for a myriad of perspectives to be considered, leading to decisions that are both well-informed and universally supported.

Below are a few other popular case studies highlighting the significant impact of psychological safety:

  • Technology Firms: Google’s Project Aristotle highlighted that among their high-performing teams, psychological safety was the most important factor for success, encouraging innovation and resilience.
  • Pixar: Pixar’s famed 'Braintrust' meetings are grounded in psychological safety, allowing team members to give candid feedback without fear. This open dialogue has been instrumental in maintaining Pixar’s creative edge and producing box office hits.
  • IDEO: The design firm IDEO incorporates psychological safety as a core component of its creative processes. By fostering an environment where team members feel safe to express unpolished ideas and take risks, IDEO consistently delivers innovative solutions for its clients.

How might we know if we're operating in a psychologically safe environment?

Determining whether your workplace is psychologically safe involves observing specific behaviors and gathering feedback from team members. One of the most telling signs is the level of open and honest communication. Do team members share their ideas freely, even unconventional ones? Are they willing to admit mistakes without fear of retribution? These behaviors indicate a high level of psychological safety.

Another indicator is how often team members ask questions and seek feedback. When people feel safe, they are more likely to ask clarifying questions and offer constructive criticism. Conversely, if you're in an environment where people avoid speaking up or disagreeing, it may signal a lack of psychological safety.

You can also observe the dynamics during team meetings. Pay attention to whether everyone participates or if only a few voices dominate the conversation. Inclusive dialogue where multiple perspectives are heard suggests a safe environment. On the other hand, if meetings are characterized by silence or a lack of engagement, this could be a red flag.

Additionally, look out for signs of mutual support and respect among team members. High psychological safety environments are marked by a culture of support where team members encourage each other and handle conflicts constructively. A lack of trust or frequent interpersonal conflicts can indicate the opposite.

Here are a few introspective questions to consider:

  • Do team members feel comfortable sharing their ideas or concerns during strategy discussions?
  • Is everyone’s input valued and considered in the decision-making process?
  • Are we witnessing a balanced participation from all team members?
  • How do team members react when someone shares a dissenting opinion?
  • Is there an environment that encourages asking questions without fear of being judged?
  • Do people frequently express their genuine thoughts or do they seem to hold back?
  • Are conflicts handled in a respectful and constructive manner?
  • Does the team demonstrate mutual support and respect during strategic conversations?

Consider conducting surveys (or even run a belief challenging exercise) to capture the team’s sentiments about their safety and well-being. These surveys can provide valuable insights and highlight areas for improvement.

Core Principles of Psychological Safety

Frame work as a learning problem, not an execution problem: Many organizations focus on whether tasks are completed, often missing out on valuable learning opportunities. Instead, teams should ask, “Have we learned something?” or “Did something surprise us?” Our post on divergent thinking discusses various techniques like “how might we…?” questions that can facilitate this approach.

Embrace diversity of thought: Research indicates that organizations benefit when they embrace diversity of thought. Teams composed of individuals with different life experiences are better equipped to identify problems and propose creative solutions. This diversity encourages a wider range of ideas and solutions.

As a leader or a contributor, recognize your own fallibility: In their book, Playing to Win, Lafley and Martin suggest using language that transitions from ‘advocating’ your point of view, towards more open communication that welcomes feedback and challenge.

Model curiosity and ask a lot of questions: This continues to surface as something that can be done systematically as well (like a document that represents uncertainty through ‘open questions’). In Atif Rafiq’s book ‘Decision Sprint’ he suggests ‘Question and Answer’ lists as an artifact for recognizing and managing uncertainty.

Celebrate wins: Noticing and acknowledging small successes can create a positive feedback loop that enhances psychological safety. Sharing credit and emphasizing collective success over individual achievements can reinforce team cohesion and boost morale. For example, appreciating efforts and expressing gratitude can strengthen your team members’ sense of self-worth and trust.

Integrating Psychological Safety into the Strategy Formation Process

Integrating psychological safety into your strategy formation process may seem like a daunting task at first. It's not just about a checklist of things to do; it's about cultivating an environment where every team member feels valued and heard. The challenge lies in shifting mindsets and behaviors that have often been reinforced over years, if not decades.

However, the effort is undeniably worth it. When team members feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to share innovative ideas, voice concerns, and collaborate effectively. This contributes to more robust and comprehensive strategies that consider multiple perspectives and potential pitfalls. In the end, fostering psychological safety is a strategic investment in your team's resilience and long-term success.

Promoting psychological safety involves specific actions and attitudes:

  • Create space for new ideas, even wild ones: Challenges should be framed within a context of support. Decide whether you want only thoroughly tested ideas or if you’re open to highly creative, untested concepts. Ask tough questions but maintain a supportive approach. Learn more about fostering innovative mindsets here.
  • Embrace productive conflict: Facilitate sincere dialogue and constructive debate. Establish norms for how team members can express concerns and manage conflicting perspectives respectfully. This can set the stage for incremental change and continuous improvement.
  • Establish norms for handling failure: Avoid punishing reasonable risk-taking and experimentation. Recognize that mistakes are opportunities for growth. Share lessons learned openly to encourage a culture of continuous learning and innovation.
  • Develop open-dialogue skills: Leaders can foster psychological safety by honing their skills in sponsorship, situational humility, and asking powerful, open-ended questions. Active and intent listening is crucial for understanding colleagues' feelings and values, fostering better conversations and, subsequently, a better culture.
  • Celebrate wins: Notice and acknowledge what is going well. Recognize collective success rather than individual achievements to promote a team-oriented mentality.

Psychological safety is a vital component for effective strategy formation and decision-making. By fostering an environment where team members feel safe to share their ideas, learn from mistakes, and engage in constructive dialogue, organizations can unlock innovative solutions and drive continuous improvement.

Ultimately, creating a culture of psychological safety is not a one-time effort but an ongoing commitment. Leaders play a crucial role in this process by modeling openness, encouraging participation, and acknowledging the value of each team member's input. Teams that prioritize psychological safety can better navigate the complexities of modern business environments, adapt to changes, and overcome challenges more efficiently.

A Few Practical First Steps to Get Started with Psychological Safety

To foster psychological safety in your strategic dialog, you might start by introducing a few practical steps:

  • Create a Psychological Safety Scorecard: Design a scorecard to regularly evaluate the openness and inclusiveness of your strategic dialogues. Track metrics such as the frequency of participation, the diversity of ideas shared, and the presence of constructive feedback.
  • Conduct Anonymous Surveys: Use anonymous surveys to gather honest feedback from team members about their comfort level in sharing ideas and voicing concerns. This can highlight areas that need improvement.
  • Set Clear Expectations: Clearly communicate to your team that psychological safety is a priority. Encourage behaviors that support open communication and respectful dialogue.
  • Facilitate Open Forums: Host regular team meetings specifically focused on psychological safety. Allow team members to share their experiences and suggestions for creating a more supportive environment.
  • Train and Develop Leaders: Invest in leadership development programs to cultivate behaviors that promote psychological safety, such as active listening, empathy, and situational humility.
  • Recognize and Reward Contributions: Acknowledge and reward team members who actively contribute to creating a safe environment by sharing innovative ideas and providing constructive feedback.

Starting with these steps can set a solid foundation for building psychological safety and ultimately foster a more open and resilient team.

Don't be afraid to try new things. Starting small can often yield the best results and provide invaluable learning experiences. Remember, building psychological safety is a journey, not a destination. Iterate on your efforts, learn from your team, and continuously improve the environment.

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