How do you measure psychological safety?


How do you measure psychological safety?

I am often asked this question by leaders who have read that psychological safety is a pre-requisite for high performance in teams and organizations.

This post offers a 3 step process to measure and build psychological safety.  It also considers the pitfalls to look out for, the source of magic and how the process works in practice.

Let’s start with answering the question, what is psychological safety?

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is

a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes

This definition from Prof. Amy Edmondson is deceptively simple. The ramifications are profound.

Think of the organizations, teams and leaders you know.  How many demonstrate a disconnect between aspiration and reality?  They want to be known for inspiring great results and finding creative solutions.  Yet many get stuck because of invisible dynamics which play out on a daily basis.

You see it when an employee keeps quiet although something is clearly wrong, and when a contractor doesn’t mention a different way of working in case they get laughed at.  You see it in ritualized board meetings and team meetings where Groupthink prevails or the risk of being cast as the dissenting voice is just too high.

Low psychological safety gets in the way of performance, innovation and learning.

And, if you can’t deliver the project and outcomes you’ve promised, it will get in the way of personal success.  In other words

psychological safety is the key enabler.

This insight, from over 25 years of research by Edmondson, gained traction with the publication of her book, The Fearless Organization.

The book includes numerous case studies including one about Google’s Project Aristotle.  Aristotle explored one question from hundreds of angles:

what makes Google’s most effective teams so effective?

Aristotle identified four factors that helped explain team performance – clear goals, dependable colleagues, personally meaningful work and a belief that the work has impact. However, according to Google’s lead researcher a fifth factor, psychological safety, had the biggest impact.

psychological safety was by far the most important factor…it was the underpinning of the other four

If this surprises you, take a look at this link.  You’ll find a brief introduction to psychological safety explained through a neuroscience lens.

 

How to measure and build psychological safety?

Many consultants and coaches will offer you a 3 step process to measure and build psychological safety.

A 3 step process
  1. Gather data with a survey that typically comprises a series of statements. Team members are asked how much they agree with each statement.
  2. Collect the data and crunch the numbers – many suggest using an online tool to take the drudgery out of this step and generate reports for use in step 3.
  3. Debrief with the team in a facilitated discussion and agree actions.

It sounds easy, so you need to be aware of potential pitfalls.

Potential Pitfalls

These steps will only bring results if people are confident that there will be no repercussions for telling the truth as they see it

This means you need to be careful about:

  • how you introduce the data gathering exercise
  • how you build confidence in the survey answers being treated as confidential
  • who facilitates the follow up conversation in Step 3 and how they do it.

It’s rarely appropriate for the team leader to lead early discussions about psychological safety without support – they are too closely associated with the current way of doing things, and this gets in the way of good outcomes.

To ensure trust in the process, consider working with an independent and skilled third party such as an HR partner, coach, or external consultant who:

  • can stay grounded, and clear thinking when emotions run high.
  • knows how to work with groups and teams where there is low psychological safety
  • will work ‘with you’, rather than ‘on you’

Select the right person for support, and you will be able to create an environment where magic can happen.

Magic comes from hard numbers

The combination of reports and facilitated discussion in Step 3 provide the magic.

I use the Fearless Organization Scan (also known as the psychological safety index, or PSI), which has been developed in collaboration with Prof. Edmondson.

 

The scan generates reports with graphs, like the one above, to give a snapshot of hard numbers relating to four domains:

  • Inclusion and Diversity
  • Willingness to Help and Teaming
  • Attitude to Risk and Failure
  • Open Conversation

The combination of numbers and graphs allows team members to see, and speak about their often very different experiences of working in the same team.

The facilitated discussion leads to team agreement on the areas to be addressed.

A fellow facilitator recounts what happened during Step 3, when he was debriefing the scan with one client.

Case Study

“I’d already done some work with the leader of this tech team, when I was asked to run a session using the scan.  I started the session with an explanation of psychological safety, then I showed the team the consolidated report of their scores.

The overall score was high, implying that there was a cluster of people who saw things the same way.  But what was interesting was the range – there was quite a big negative deviation and one big outlier.

The team leader and two highly influential techies were in the cluster with high scores.  The three of them were responsible for all the big technological innovations, finding new solutions and driving fundamental change.

It took less than thirty seconds, for one of these techies to start talking:

‘I’m looking at the consolidated score and at my individual score.  I may not be the team leader, but I am the technical leader. I have absolute confidence in speaking up about anything, and I can see from the data that other members of this team see things very, very differently. I guess that makes me the *******. From now on I’m going to shut up and listen

I can see from the data that other members of this team see things very, very differently.  I guess that makes me the *******. From now on I’m going to shut up and listen

A gift

To me, as facilitator, that contribution was a gift – one of the most powerful people in the team had invited his colleagues to speak up in such a way that they knew they would be listened to.

The person who was the outlier, responded immediately.  She said, ‘You guys are technical experts, I have a very different background.  My job is in training and comms. You recruited me because I know about narrative and helping people understand stuff.

If I’m honest, my experience of being in this team is that you guys, the technical experts, make decisions about what’s required very quickly.  Then you act on them, and I am the last to know. But here’s the thing: I’m the one who’s responsible for translating all the stuff that you come up with into words that our customers can understand.  My job is to put it into user guides that they can actually use, and this isn’t working for me.’

A fundamental shift

This exchange led to a lot of dialogue and ultimately a fundamental shift in their strategic approach.  The debrief had created an opportunity where the outlier finally felt safe enough, and courageous enough to bring the voice of customer into the room.”

Now this is an unusual example, because the shift happened so quickly.  More often than not, it takes longer to get to such a pivotal moment, but with quality facilitation you will get there.

Once you are there, you have a sound basis for action planning.  You also have a baseline, and the option to revisit the survey at a later date to see how scores have changed with actions taken.

I’m not pedaling psychological safety as the answer to everything – as Prof. Edmondson says:

Psychological safety takes off the brakes that keep people from achieving what’s possible.

I see too many leaders working excessive hours in pursuit of high performance.  Much of their effort is wasted because they haven’t realised that low psychological safety is acting as a brake.

It needn’t be!  Don’t fall into the same trap.

 

Measure your psychological safety for free with this link

It comes courtesy of Caerus Change, strategic partners to The Fearless Organization. 

Get in touch to find out more

 

Image:  Psychological Safety by uenlinotes on Voynetech