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  • Writer's pictureNeil Stoneham

5 Steps for Communicating Psychological Safety

Have you ever been involved in a project where every target was hit, every Key Performance Indicator delivered and every single element a success? Probably not. What about a project that failed to perform as expected, missed several KPIs, and was generally a disappointment. Probably.

No matter how solid our plans, we have to accept the risk of failure as a given. It’s just part of the process. Or it should be.

Sadly, not every manager accepts this idea. As soon as something goes wrong, they look for someone to blame. They are rarely introspective and consider the part they may have played in the failure. Others in the team are scapegoated and made to feel small. The result? Bad morale and overcorrection. The next project is planned meticulously, and everything kept safe. But failure still happens (and is, ironically, made more likely to happen due to lack of creativity).

Research shows the best performing teams take plenty of risks and feel comfortable doing so. Sometimes those risks pay off. Other times, they fail. But instead of feeling guilty, the team is encouraged to learn. That learning inspires better performance, and learning from mistakes increases the chances of success.

‘Psychological safety’ is a trending topic in management circles. Here’s a good primer on the concept from Harvard Business Review.

But how do you create an environment that allows your team to take risks and even encourage it?

A big part of that answer lies in communication.

Here are five steps to communicating psychological safety effectively:

1. Set clear expectations and boundaries Allowing people to take risks doesn’t mean you are giving them a free-for-all. It’s not like they’ll have unlimited budget and can just try out absurd ideas because they feel like it. People feel emboldened to take risks when they understand what is expected of them and how much room for manoeuvre they have. Perhaps you can lay out certain procedures that reduce risk, such as having two people sign off on an idea before it is executed. Or list examples of what constitutes ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’ risk.

2. Create a supportive ‘learning’ environment In this HBR article, author Amy Gallo shares the story of how her boss asked her what she had learnt from her experience of failure, rather than berating her for it. This small action changed her approach to work in profound ways. It’s important that when a risk ends in failure, those responsible reflect on what happened and share their learnings with others. And they should be respected for doing so, not made to feel ashamed or embarrassed. In fact, it’s good to share learnings from success, too. But, of course, that’s much easier!

3. Ask open questions to individuals in a private setting Asking people how things are going or seeking advice on the progress of a project make people realise their voice matters. This gives them more confidence to speak up if things go wrong or they have a change of heart. It is also good to have these conversations in a private setting, as people are more likely to be candid than in if they are in a room full of colleagues.

4. Tell people they should still expect to feel uncomfortable Being allowed to take risks doesn’t mean the ride is any easier. We should naturally feel a little uneasy about risk-taking, otherwise the action simply wouldn’t fit the description! Tell people that it’s fine to feel a little queasy when making risky decisions, so long as they have done so responsibly.

5. Reward risk-taking that has a positive impact When a risk pays off, publicise it and reward those responsible. This creates a sense that risk-taking has a positive side – many of us are programmed to think of risk as a danger, a negative. People are inspired by others who take risks, which encourages them to take risks of their own. When they feel that management has their back, of course.

The above list is not exhaustive, but just a few tips on how you can create a psychologically safe environment for managers to operate in.


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