To what extent do you practice “safety first” – specifically psychological safety – in your team meetings and other group settings at work? 

Harvard University Professor Amy Edmondson who studies psychological safety defines it “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

This means team members feel comfortable speaking up to share their ideas and challenge others. They also are confident that members, their team lead, boss, or anyone else, will not judge them harshly, or take punitive action against them.

When team members experience a “climate of openness,” they work better together and operate as a high-performing team.

After reviewing Amy Edmondson’s work and spending four years studying high-performing teams and groups up close and personal, best-selling author Dan Coyle determined that building safety is the foundation for a strong, healthy culture, especially for teams.

In his new book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Coyle explains that we’ve been approaching culture the wrong way. Culture is not something that is; it’s something that you build.

Coyle maintains that leaders need to view creating culture as a leadership capability that you proactively learn and apply. He identifies these specific skills, in this order, as necessary.

  1. Build safety.
  2. Share vulnerability.
  3. Establish purpose.

Coyle not only supports Amy Edmonson’s findings, he also goes farther. Coyle emphasizes that to build safety, you need to send clear, strong and continuous signals to team members that they are welcome, they belong, and they share a future with everyone else. Individuals need to feel that they are “seen, heard and connected” with everyone else.

Building safety is hardly a “one and done” check-off-the-box action. You need to consider building safety more like a constant game that depends on passing balls to teammates, Coyle maintains.

To provide a safe environment, you need to practice daily, which helps you detect increased stress levels, react quickly and sincerely, and be more fluid in your actions. You need to deliver targeted, customized signals that show you genuinely care.

Why is this so important? Because of the way our brains work. Our unconsciousness is constantly scanning for threats to our safety. Our default mode is to feel threatened.

In a group setting, when we don’t feel intentionally included, it’s easy to feel excluded. And when we feel excluded, we can feel social pain that sticks with us, which hurts our performance. See my blog post Why performance improves when you avoid inflicting social pain.

In addition to sending signals of belonging and caring, you can build safety by being vulnerable, which is Coyle’s second skill.

As a leader, whenever you share a weakness with another, such as acknowledging you don’t know an answer, you’ve made a mistake, or you’re anxious about a decision, you signal that you’re hardly perfect or all powerful. In fact, you’re open to harm, including experiencing an emotional or physical attack (although the latter is less likely in a work setting).

When others see you being honest about your vulnerabilities, you become a more trustworthy individual in their eyes. And they’re more willing to cooperate with you, and be open about their weaknesses too.

Being vulnerable with one another can become contagious. These “vulnerability loops” as Coyle has named them helps create the climate of openness that Amy Edmondson has identified as so potent for high-performing teams.

Teams are able to turn their shared vulnerability into “learning moments” so they can figure out ways to improve, which enhances their ongoing performance.

The third skill is crafting purpose.  (Apologies to Simon Sinek who said, and wrote, “Start with Why.” )

In Coyle’s research, purpose is more about navigation than inspiration. Coyle found that great teams “relentlessly over-communicate” through stories, goals, and values what they are about and how they’re getting there.

These signals, along with heuristics, help the team set priorities, respond to problems and even help onboard new members.

Besides learning these three skills, be clear about the type of culture you need for your team or organization. Coyle says all cultures can be divided into two types: culture of proficiency in which you are striving to do the same things every time and a culture of creativity in which you are trying to create something new.

For a culture of proficiency, leaders need to provide a map.

For a culture of creativity, leaders need to build systems that support people as they figure out what to do. 

In other words, you still need to learn the three skills (safety, vulnerability, and purpose); however, you need to apply them differently.

When you look at culture as something you can build through specific skills, you should be able to view changing culture as a manageable undertaking. It’s less like scaling a mountain and more like paving a path – with one important proviso.

Ensuring that you have a psychologically safe work environment, not just physically safe, is easier said than done. Yet, if others can do it, you can too – on your own or with help.

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