Psychological Safety – Free to Frozen

Written by Dr. Dan Docherty

   There are moments when I realize that a topic for a blog might come at the exact right time. Recently, I had several of our clients independently ask me questions about Psychological Safety and how it impacts performance including execution, and innovation. If you’ve ever thought about the impact of Psychological Safety on your team, I encourage you to keep reading. 

    First, I want to make sure that I direct you to two recent resources that are outstanding pieces of work. As you know, I prefer to recommend resources that are supported empirically and tested practically. 

  • The Fearless Organization by Amy C. Edmondson
  • The Four Stages of Psychological Safety by Timothy R. Clark

    Amy Edmondson, PhD is the Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. She is recognized by the biannual Thinkers50 global ranking of management thinkers since 2011, and has published over 70 articles and written numerous books on the topic of Psychological Safety.

    Amy explains that “Psychological safety exists when people feel their workplace is an environment where they can speak up, offer ideas, and ask questions without fear of being punished or embarrassed.” In Amy’s book she references a Google study that was chronicled in a 2016 NY Times article titled: 

“What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team”

 NY Times Article

    To cut to the point, Google found that Psychological Safety is at the root of answering this question, and they reference Amy’s work that goes back to 1999. As a leader or coach, I recommend that you dig into this important leadership topic now that we have over 20 years of research.

    Several years ago, I was in Chicago for a business meeting. It was a multiple day meeting, and I was a relatively new manager within the business unit. By all accounts, the meeting was a success, and I was looking forward to going back to Cincinnati where I could implement some of the strategies and tactics that we agreed upon as a team. You could say that I was “free” to perform. 

    As I’m walking through O’Hare airport, I hear a page come overhead in the terminal for me not once but twice. Now I don’t know about you, but if you’ve ever been paged or called at a strange time, in a strange place, and unexpectedly, you know the stress (thank you Cortisol) that will ensue. I remember running to a phone, returning the page, and getting a message to call my boss ASAP. I thought to myself that this is weird, because I just left a great meeting, so what could possibly be so important to get a page in the airport. 

    After returning the call and getting a very stern verbal lashing about a particular incident, I remember the moment that I went from “free” to “frozen”. I got on the plane and my head was swirling as questions came flooding to my mind. 

  • What was I going to do? 
  • Was I going to be fired? 
  • How would this impact my team?
  • Was performance going to slip?

    As I processed on the plane, I realized that I felt the four stages that Tim Clark writes about in his book. I felt inclusion, learner, contributor, and challenger safety. At the time of this case, Psychological Safety wasn’t understood like it is today. Here is the good news, the “frozen” feeling didn’t last long, and we eventually resolved the issue…and my team flourished.

    Here are a few tips that I recommend you do immediately:

  1. Read one or both the books listed above
  2. Assess Psychological Safety within your team 
  3. Discuss the topic with the team
  4. Implement approaches that help the team feel free not frozen
  5. Check-in quarterly with your team, and be humble as a leader to accept input if you aren’t driving a culture where the team can learn, experiment, and challenge

    However, here is the moment that really sticks with me. As a leader or coach, one conversation can impact the perception of psychological safety within an individual and a team. Keep in mind that conversations matter and sometimes a negative impact goes deeper than you can.