Creating a culture of psychological safety within teams is key to unlocking innovation, driving business success, and fostering an inclusive and equitable work environment. Still, it can be difficult to achieve. Having a meaningful way to measure it can get you started by identifying areas of opportunity to improve psychological safety within your teams.
What is psychological safety?
According to Amy Edmonson, a professor at Harvard Business School and a leading expert on psychological safety, it is “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking” (Edmonson, 1999). In other words, it’s the extent to which individuals on a team feel comfortable expressing themselves, taking risks, and bringing their authentic selves to work. This level of safety enables team members to voice their ideas and concerns without fear of judgment or retribution.
Psychological safety is an essential element for team success, as it leads to improved well-being, job satisfaction, creativity, and innovation. According to research conducted by Edmonson and Google, it is arguably the most crucial factor that enables teams to perform at their best.
If creativity and innovation come from the mix of differing ideas, from individuals with different backgrounds sharing and learning from each other, workplaces need methods to allow this to happen, and leaders need to invest in making it safe for all, including those with marginalized voices, to share their ideas; to teach and learn from others*.
In our current economy, where layoffs occur weekly and people are compelled to return to the office, team psychological safety is facing challenges from external forces beyond the control of most teams.
Consider your experiences. How often have you felt hesitant to speak up for an idea, doubted the validity of your contribution, felt ignored or unheard after making a contribution, or worried about job loss due to making a mistake?
Extensive research has highlighted the disparities experienced by women and people of color in the workplace and beyond**. These challenges have a cumulative impact that disproportionately affects women and, in particular, women of color, who are more likely to experience lower levels of psychological safety in the workplace.
*The book Collective Genius: The art and practice of leading innovation (Linda A. Hill, Great Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback) explores this concept further with examples from a number of companies that exemplify cultures of innovation.
**For more on the challenges that women and people of color face in the workplace, I recommend Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez and the work of the Time’s Up Foundation, starting with their article, Building an Anti-Racist Workplace.
Identifying a lack of safety
By responding to the above prompt, you may have already begun to identify the signs of a lack of psychological safety in yourself. However, it’s also important to recognize these signs in a team context. In my team, we do this by regularly measuring team psychological safety. To illustrate my approach, I’ll share my experience and observations when I took over management of the Happy Money product design team.
Design teams are relied upon to be creative, innovative, and collaborative, and ours was no exception.
During my time as an individual contributor on the team, a number of observations led me to believe we had developed a defensive culture that was struggling to be any of those things. Designers preferred working on their own, myself included. We avoided sharing progress with other designers on the team for fear of rejection or a belief that we knew the work was subpar and that there was nothing any of us could do to fix it. Design critiques were exercises to be dreaded that ended in (quite literally) tears on an all too regular basis. The team was defensive about their work as individuals, and it was challenging not to take feedback personally. We met regularly, but managers or I, the most senior member of the team at the time, tended to be the only ones speaking regularly. Awkward silences were commonplace.
Armed with a mission of doing better, I came upon the idea of psychological safety while chatting with a colleague about what I’d observed. They pointed me to Amy Edmonson’s book, The Fearless Organization, and shared the survey they were using to measure psychological safety for their own organization.
The Fearless Organization provided me with a foundational understanding of the research and initial ideas for potential solutions for my team. Given my background as a product designer, I knew I had to validate my observations to ensure they were accurate and make sure I had a full picture of what was happening. So, I set up a copy of my colleague's psychological safety survey and sent the link to our entire product team via Slack, and began measuring results.
Our initial results skewed surprisingly high, given what I’d observed from myself and my direct reports, but perhaps tellingly, our participation rates were low—only a third of the team had completed the optional survey. So our product leadership team chose to view non-participation as an indicator that it was likely that two-thirds of the team did not feel psychologically safe enough to contribute. We shared results with the team at our next team meeting and used written feedback to propose actions to take before the next quarter.
Iterating on methodology
Even with just the first attempt, we came away with some lessons that we immediately applied to the subsequent survey:
Anonymity is critical to getting accurate results. If your team is small, and you suspect it already has a defensive culture, you may want to find another team to pair up with for your research in order to preserve a sense of anonymity. Teams you work with regularly are great for this, and a broader measurement of survey results can increase the impact of higher psychological safety for your organization. For example, we combined the Product Design and Product Management safety surveys together.
Allow people to elect not to participate, but make time for people to do so if they want to. Forcing participation increases the likelihood that those that feel psychologically unsafe will pollute your data set with results you want to hear rather than how they’re really feeling.
Non-participation can be measured and also tells its own story. After our initial survey, we weren’t entirely sure that non-participation meant that someone was uncomfortable completing the survey or if they’d just forgotten or been on vacation. To help control this, we began setting aside time during our regular team All-hands meetings to complete the form, reminding the team that participation was still optional and to turn cameras off as they completed the survey. By now, the company had gone fully remote due to Covid, and we were concerned that being on camera would add to the pressure to complete the form more positively. This helped us increase participation and allowed us to account for folks that were unable to complete the survey due to vacation or illness.
We’ve also found that setting aside time during a scheduled meeting is a great way to ensure that everyone who wants to participate in feedback surveys has a chance to do so, and it’s become a regular part of our all-company, all-hands meeting format as well.
Sharing numerical results transparently with the team will help build trust and creates accountability for leaders to take action against results. However, it’s important that leadership, or a trusted, small group of people, synthesize and summarize all written feedback to preserve anonymity. I learned this the hard way and triggered a good bit of fear by directly sharing written feedback after our first survey. Fortunately, I had a few team members who felt safe enough to tell me it made them uncomfortable, and we were able to correct this for future surveys.
Making time to discuss results and invite the team to brainstorm solutions on improving any areas of concern is a great way to encourage the team to practice and develop team psychological safety. It’s important during these discussions for leaders to practice accountability and self-awareness in identifying where they may have contributed to problem areas and to thank the team for their participation and candor. In my previous example of directly sharing write-in feedback, this was as simple as owning up to that being a bad idea, sharing the feedback I had received with gratitude, and demonstrating action to correct the situation by summarizing write-in feedback for our next survey.
If you receive actionable feedback from the team, do everything you can to make it a reality. Then report back on actions taken prior to the next survey. Surveys can have a tendency to become performative on their own. Making time to measure team psychological safety does not actually improve it by itself. It’s a tool to help you identify where issues may be present, lead discussions on how to improve as a team, and potentially track improvement.
Speaking of tracking improvement, we eventually revised our survey to directly align with Amy Edmonson’s work in order for us to score and track changes to the three aspects of team psychological safety she discusses in her research; individual safety, team respect, and team learning. This helped us to better identify actions could take to improve over time. That said, while you can generate a “score” from the survey results, it’s not necessary. We were still able to take direct action and observe team changes without a score, but if reporting change over time is something that’s important to you, it’s a great opportunity to partner with your data analytics team so they can help you get the data that best illustrates your team’s journey. Unless you are on the data analytics team, in which case, have fun!
Finally, be consistent. While the survey acts as a means of measurement and doesn’t create or improve team psychological safety by itself, it does act as a tool for communicating to your teams that you care about psychological safety. If you’re inconsistent, it will communicate the opposite and could erode the team's psychological safety.
At this point, you may be wondering where we landed with my design team. We’ve been measuring psychological safety with our Product Management partners for a little over two years now. Written feedback has gotten more specific, and scores tend to stay pretty consistent and positive overall.
More importantly, the work and discussions around psychological safety led my team to reimagine how we should hold design critiques. A few of our senior designers worked together to build a new, safer process for sharing work with feedback from the rest of the team. I was able to step back and just ensure the new process had space to work and grow for them. We now meet weekly for these sessions, and while still uncomfortable and definitely not perfect, we do not have folks leaving them crying. We still mess up and get nervous about saying the wrong thing (I know I sure do), there are still awkward silences, and we’re still a work in progress. But we have a resilient and diverse team that’s had no voluntary attrition in over a year. And those that left prior to that did so with the team's encouragement and blessing. Encouragement and sharing of knowledge are more common, and more of our design work is getting shipped to production than ever before. I firmly believe taking the time and making space to measure psychological safety and prioritizing taking action to improve it contributed to this result.
In addition to a number of articles and books. I’ve also leveraged a few other tools and processes to help my immediate team maintain psychological safety when we’re not measuring it with our survey. All of those tools and resources are listed below. I hope our experience at Happy Money inspires you to try this out with your teams as well.
Our survey can be found here. Feel free to make your own copy to try it out with your teams.
The format of our survey is based on the work of Amy Edmonson, which she writes about in The fearless organization.
In addition to our survey, my team uses Kona to help us keep a daily pulse on how everyone is doing for the day. As a fully remote team, we don’t have the benefit of daily connection by seeing each other IRL every morning. Kona does a solid job of filling that gap for us with a lightweight check-in that’s part of our regular Slack channels. It also provides me insights and data that can alert me of potential burnout and other opportunities to lean into fostering a psychologically safe team culture.
I’ve mentioned team meetings a few times in the above article. These are the places where I first noticed something amiss in our team culture. We have a few recurring meetings designed to support and foster our current design team culture:
- Weekly Warm-ups: kicking off the week with what we did on the weekends and what we hope to accomplish for the week
- Bi-weekly Friday Fun sessions: no work, just play and chatting, and
- Team Office Hours/Design Jams: our re-branded design critiques
Our current format of these meetings was heavily influenced by the Figma product design team’s process.
Laura Zinssmeister is the Director of Product Design at Happy Money, a financial technology company that offers a people-first lending experience in partnership with credit unions and other community-focused financial institutions.