“The antidote to fear is trust… Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it.”
—Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, Creativity, Inc.
Over the past twenty years—the last ten of which I’ve spent in software development—I have worked with and managed creative teams. I’ve learned that a psychologically safe environment is fundamental to positive team culture; it supports a higher degree of collaboration, honest communication, innovative thinking, and faster solution finding toward shared goals. It is essential to building high-performing teams.
But you don’t need to trust my word alone; there is plenty of research and evidence out there, and at the end of this post I have included a couple of those resources.
What do I mean by psychological safety?
Psychological safety refers to an environment that enables you to comfortably be yourself—showcasing your strengths, your weaknesses, your passions, your quirks—without feeling threatened. A psychologically safe environment allows you to share opinions, to be heard, to know that you make a difference, and know that you are accepted.
In this environment, you can take risks and admit fault (or confess, as my team likes to say, that you “done-goofed”) without feeling that you will be shamed for it. This type of environment allows you to fail, to learn, to try again, and to grow. It means that criticism, blame, demeaning comments, judgement, comparison, and competition to be “right” are not accepted parts of team norms. Learning, getting things done together, and accomplishing shared goals are the priority.
The four cornerstones of psychological safety
I believe in an environment within which a team is able to succeed exceptionally, while at the same time being comfortable with co-workers and enjoying the work that they do. Though I am neither a researcher nor a psychologist, this aligns with what I have read and learned about the notion of psychological safety.
So I am going to use that term here as I outline what I consider to be, in the development of positive team culture, four cornerstones of psychological safety: a strong sense of team, positive intention, accountability, and trust.
To be a team is to have a shared understanding of our goal, and a shared understanding that we are all working toward that same goal—an understanding that we are all in this together, and that mutual support is required. A strong team requires a shared vision, a shared sense of responsibility towards mistakes, problems, and solutions, and ultimately a shared sense of purpose.
This may seem basic, but in reality, many people are often put off by, or threatened by, the concept of a team. It goes against our perception of individual achievement and against the culture of many organizations, where the measure of an employee’s success is based on the individual not the team—and even more where an individual’s organizational growth and promotion occurs in direct comparison to others. Though I could offer opinion on the challenges of that style of organizational culture, the main point I want to make is that this perception, or reality, does not need to be an obstacle to our understanding and working as a team.
A strong sense of team doesn’t mean we all have the same job. It means we complement each other. It doesn’t mean that my accomplishments are your accomplishments. I can still accomplish great things, and be recognized for those accomplishments as an individual. It doesn’t mean that my mistakes are your mistakes either. I am still accountable for my mistakes. But it does mean that we succeed or fail together, and that it behooves us to then face challenges and solve issues together, whether those issues arise due to a miss by an individual or the team as a whole or even from factors outside of the team.
To create a strong team environment, we must always assume that our team members act with good intention. Sometimes we do good things, sometimes we make mistakes; we can disagree and argue, and even get frustrated. But at all times, we must assume that our co-workers’ intentions are good and aligned with the shared goals of the team.
The parallel to this is to always act with good intentions. This is true, but I’ve often found that it is our assumptions regarding the intentions of others that lie at the root of much conflict and misunderstanding. To build a positive environment, we must always start by assuming others’ intentions are good.
Mistakes rarely, if ever, occur due to bad intentions. If intention is assumed to be good, we can be much more accepting of the reality that mistakes occur. And a strong sense of team allows us to acknowledge that, even when mistakes happen and challenges occur, it is better that we work together towards a solution.
Psychological safety is not all roses, singing in the rain, and confetti. We are also required to be accountable for ourselves, our work, and our performance, both as individuals and as a team. This means taking ownership of our mistakes—taking ownership for dropping the ball. But it also means that we can take ownership of our accomplishments.
If I make a mistake, I own it and I admit it. If my team member or my client lets me know that I made a mistake or missed a priority, I own it and resolve to fix it. If we miss a deadline as a team, we own it. On the other hand, if I, or we as a team, accomplish a good thing, we own that too, and we recognize that accomplishment.
Mistakes do happen, miscommunication happens, bugs occur, things get delayed. It is not always easy, but it is important at those times that we, as individuals and as a team, are accountable. This is the only way we can learn and improve. The first two cornerstones are critical in allowing this to happen.
Trust is fundamental to an environment of psychological safety. Trust is built upon, and grows from, the three cornerstones I laid out above. Trust is an interesting concept in a business environment. It is not often talked about, but it is more than the classic “trust” fall found on outward-bound style business retreats, where you stand on a stump and let yourself fall back into the arms of your co-workers.
When I am using the word trust here, I am referring to something a bit deeper. It’s trust that my team members support me, trust that my team members respect me, that we share the same goal. I trust that my team members pose no threat to me, will not demean me, are well intentioned, and will support and help me. And, I have trust in myself that I will offer to my team that same level of support.
A safe team is a great team
A psychologically safe environment creates a positive team culture and is a key quality of great teams. Throughout this year, I plan to provide more thoughts on why psychological safety is important, and what it actually looks like for a team. Meantime, here are two links to evidence and information on the merits of psychological safety.