Psychological safety means there is a shared team belief that it is safe to take interpersonal risks like admitting a mistake without fear of judgement or reprisal. This is not about shirking from accountability but creating a culture that re-frames “things that go wrong” to “what did we learn?”. I believe that many schools are paralysed by unhealthy cultures that stifles creativity and snuffs out motivation. It is, therefore, no surprise that there is a recruitment crisis. If we, as a profession, do not take control and create healthy working environments, teaching is at risk of collapsing in on itself.
Psychological safety was coined in the late nineties by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson. She believes that psychological safety supports a learning mindset that helps people feel valued and respected which, in turn, can mould high performing teams.
Internet giant Google put the concept to the test. They spent two years researching what makes a high performing team. And found that it was not the result of collective IQ or talents but, instead, it was a psychological safe culture where people were able to talk and share things without fear of recriminations.
Psychological safety is not about teams being nice, as nice teams can lead to a phenomenon known as groupthink, but, as Professor Edmondson explains it’s “about candour, about making it possible for productive disagreement…that enables people on different sides of a conflict so speak candidly”. Challenge and conflict are not to be avoided but embraced.
This isn’t easy, because we don’t want to look stupid for asking a ton of questions or be embarrassed for making errors. And we go to great lengths to avoid these scenarios but this can come with a cost.
But a psychological safe culture gives people the freedom to learn and express ideas that can innovate and help individuals and teams to excel at the highest level.
Essentially, psychological safety is creating a safe learning culture, BUT what impact can psychological safe and unsafe work cultures have on performance?
When Professor Amy Edmondson first set out to find what made great teams perform in hospitals, she did not expect to find that teams who admitted the most mistakes were also those considered high performing. Teams with no mistakes were clearly not reporting them; therefore unable to improve!
Her conclusion was the best teams had a culture of psychological safety and every mistake was viewed as a learning opportunity.
Studies show that people who feel psychologically safe are more engaged, productive and motivated. MIT Professor Edgar Schein reasons that psychological safety frees people from worrying about self-protection and redirects their attention to collective goals and problem solving.
Conversely a psychological unsafe culture can disengage people that can lead to a range of problems. According to US analytics company Gallup Organisation, poorly engaged staff are 18% less productive and are 37% more likely to be off to be off work with stress or illness. It is not surprise that we are seeing nearly a third of new teachers quit withing five years and a rising trend of nearly 5% of the workforce having long term mental health issues (up from 1% two decades earlier).
Not to forget, it can also lead to high staff turnover, low staff morale and poor overall performance, symptoms schools are all too familiar with. And many of those in work try to stay under the radar. Researchers Hemant Kakkar and Subra Tangirala find that psychologically unsafe work cultures can silence even the most confident of team members. Fear being embarrassed or punished can erode self-esteem, motivation and performance.
So, how can leaders create a psychological safe school culture?
Having psychological safe culture does not mean an absence of accountability. Quite the opposite. Accountability challenges teams and pushes them to the limits but his needs to be healthy and collaboratively – not by threats.
Professor Amy Edmondson says that organisations should aim for high psychological safety and high accountability. Creating, therefore, a learning zone where failure and mistakes are part of the learning process and teams are energised for the challenge.
But the opposite is creating a culture of high accountability with a psychological unsafe culture. This can create anxiety and can be a recipe for disaster.
To avoid disaster, Professor Edmondson offers 3 actions leaders can take to create a psychological safe culture whilst not lowering standards.
Action 1: Frame work as learning problems, as opposed to execution problems. The future is unclear, so each team members’ input matters to improve performance. Have learning at the heart of your culture, as fear can disengage people causing apathy or anxiety.
Action 2: Acknowledge your own fallibility as a leader. Admit when you are wrong. We all make mistakes and miss things. Trust starts from the top of the team, if the leader is not genuine in creating a psychological safe culture it won’t happen.
Action 3: Model curiosity by asking a lot of questions. You’re not blaming or judging or showing incompetence, it’s about finding out the root problem to then find the solution or to learn more about an idea.
Many schools are accustomed to functioning within an environment which promotes a ‘blame culture’; this is not a productive and healthy strategy to lead a school. I think school leaders can learn from the findings of Amy Edmondson and Google and think about the psychological safety in our schools.
Duhigg, C. (2016, February 24). What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html
Edmondson, A. (2014, May 04). Youtube: Building a psychologically safe workplace. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8
Safety café. (2018, July 18). What Exactly is Psychological Safety? https://safetycafe.ca/2018/07/18/what-exactly-is-psychological-safety/
Slack Blog Team. (2019, February 19). Psychological safety first: building trust among teams. https://slackhq.com/psychological-safety-building-trust-teams
Weale, S. (2020). One in 20 teachers have ‘mental health problem lasting more than a year’. The Guardian online. January 28. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jan/28/one-in-20-teachers-have-mental-health-problem-lasting-more-than-a-year