Since 2015 when Google’s research identified psychological safety as one of the key attributes of high performing teams, it has received a lot of airtime. While there might be greater awareness of this characteristic, there is little guidance on how to cultivate it within an organization or team where it is absent. Hence, when I saw today’s Dilbert cartoon strip, it reminded me that instilling psychological safety is a cultural transformation.
Scott Adams does not provide insight into why the Pointy Haired Boss fired Ted but Wally’s curiosity about recent terminations and his use of Ted as a scapegoat for his project’s schedule variance clearly demonstrates that they are working within a corrosive culture of fear where failure is not recognized as a statistically expected outcome but rather is the catalyst for a witch hunt.
Sound familiar to any of you?
In one of my earlier articles, I’d provided some suggestions on how a project manager could help to instill psychological safety within their team but did not cover the need to understand the underlying causes for its absence.
While we think about psychological safety as being a team-level dynamic, it is a deeply personal feeling and like all change, needs to start at a individual level.
There are two forces operating against our feeling psychologically safe – from without and from within.
Our colleagues possess the ability to destroy our confidence in being able to take calculated risks. Every time we see someone being criticized for attempting to push the envelope it supports our personal need to play it safe. Relationship-oriented organizations can unwittingly reinforce this as no one wants to be perceived as rocking the boat.
But we shouldn’t ignore our own insecurities which might be causing us to avoid taking risks. I’ve frequently encountered individuals who hesitated to make a decision which they believed to be the right one simply because they felt they couldn’t. When pushed to identify a specific policy, standard or mandate supporting this, they were unable to and yet they still remained unwilling to proceed. When their leaders were asked if they had said anything which might have caused this, they were flummoxed. Pogo continues to be omniscient – “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Taking the time to understand what might be causing one of our team members to feel unsafe is time well spent as it will improve our likelihood of changing their perceptions.