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Succeed with safety: why psychological safety is critical to team performance

Did you ever play the game ‘barley’ when you were a child?

You know, where you’d run from post to post in an effort to find something safe. You’d avoid getting tagged otherwise you’d be ‘it’.

These days, I think the game of barley has evolved to ‘the floor is lava’. Fall onto the ground and you’re no longer safe – you become the lava monster!

And just like those games we played as kids, I’ve been thinking a lot about movement, change and feeling safe in the workplace.

I recently spoke at the Chisholm Institute Conference 2022 on the topic of ‘Psychological safety: How to build a positive climate of mutual respect and trust so people can feel comfortable being themselves’.

Can you think of a time when you had something to say that mattered, but you held back? My guess is yes. You didn’t want to be seen in a negative light.

When I ask this question in workshops, most people raise their hand.

So the question is: how do we move from fear to safety?

A lot of leaders come to me because they want to boost team connection or performance, or they want to create a sense of genuine inclusion and belonging within their teams.

But it is important to remember that if we want to change any of these factors, it all starts with ensuring psychological safety. Without it, we fall back into old patterns.  

What is psychological safety?

The go-to on this topic, Dr Amy Edmondson, describes it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”.

More simply, it’s not just about feeling good within the team – it’s about the belief that it’s OK to speak up with your ideas, concerns and mistakes. You feel safe enough to raise your hand and speak up without fear. 

When it comes to workplace performance, we want to strike the right balance of psychological safety and a drive to succeed – and teams fall into one of four zones depending on this balance:

Adapted from ‘Fearless Organisation’ by Dr Amy Edmondson

Apathy Zone – A team with neither psychological safety nor a drive to perform will be unhappy and reluctant to work. 

Comfort Zone – A team with high psychological safety but without a drive to succeed will feel safe but will not reach their potential for performance. 

Anxiety Zone – If a team has low psychological safety but is highly driven, the result can often be high levels of anxiety. This can often be seen in highly pressurised sales teams where team members are pitted against each other for results. 

High Performance Zone – The high performing team resides in this zone. They feel a great deal of psychological safety and have a strong drive to deliver results. This is also called the “learning zone” because that’s where we see innovation, experimentation and lots of learning from mistakes taking place. 

Now, reflect on where you sit:

Which quadrant does your team fit into?

Which zone were you in at the start of the year?

What about now?

Where do you want to be?

How might your team respond?

Thinking about your answers to those questions, is it time to start focusing on psychological safety in your organisation?

Whether you lead a team or are responsible for people and culture within your organisation, I offer evidence-based masterclasses and workshops designed using the latest positive psychology and relationship research. They are rigorously market tested, producing results from day one.

Feel free to get in touch with me if you’d like to talk about how I can help you and your team, as I’m currently finalising my bookings for the rest of the calendar year.


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