Three Actions that Build Psychological Safety in a Workgroup

For Loretta, attending department meetings was the worst part of the job.

When she could not avoid them altogether, she suffered through every minute. It wasn’t that terrible things happened to her in every meeting. But Loretta felt anxious throughout.

What Loretta feared was public criticism. The group had developed a culture of criticism. It had become a game in which the ultimate points were for delivering a clever putdown of another member’s comment or performance over the past week.

Loretta could tell herself that it’s irrational to be so concerned about these nasty comments, but the emotional truth was that being on the receiving end of these comments was humiliating.

Psychological safety means that people have confidence that they will receive respect and consideration from others. A group with a culture of psychological safety encourages open discussion of tough issues. It not only tolerates disagreement, it nurtures contrasting points of view. These qualities contribute to the resilience of an organization by encouraging engagement and creativity.

  1. Showing civility is the most available contribution people can make to creating and sustaining psychological safety. Attending to what others contribute and responding with consideration not only reduces anxiety but encourages creative thinking.
  2. Argue with respect. Contrasting ideas are the greatest source of creativity, but people remain open only to disagreements
  3. Make only supportive comments towards others. Humor does not excuse a putdown nor does it make one palatable. People really don’t like it.

Promoting psychological safety is a shared responsibility. The group leader makes an important contribution, but others can amplify or undermine the leader’s efforts. And often, respect from peers matters more when it comes to psychological safety and the ongoing resilience of a workgroup.

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