The final stage in the three-step model for building psychological safety within your team is to champion it. A champion is not afraid of taking on all challengers and you might face plenty of those.
You may have some team members who are used to getting their way by ridiculing or bullying others.
You could have a mix of managers and their direct reports within your team. Some of these managers might wield their formal authority to suppress concerns raised by their reports. In other cases, the managers might be quite comfortable to operate in a flat power structure alongside their staff, but their reports might be worried or insecure about challenging their managers.
There may be some stakeholders outside of your team such as the project customer, sponsor or a functional manager who behave in a manner which reduces the team’s safety. This could include actions such as criticizing them with personal attacks during meetings or threatening them if they don’t meet certain milestones.
Assuming you have followed some of the planning suggestions I provided in my earlier article, it is unlikely that these behaviors are the result of the perpetrators being ignorant of the importance of psychological safety and the relationship it had on team performance. A a leader, once you have confirmed that the behaviors are not just your perception, it is your responsibility to confront the stakeholders and convince them to change how they interact with your team.
How you go about doing that is context-specific and will depend heavily upon your powers of persuasion as well as the degree of influence you have over them. It is possible that the stakeholder might be senior to you, or worse, might even be your people manager or your manager’s manager. That is not an excuse for not creating a safe space for your team.
Hopefully you can convince the stakeholder that creating team safety will increase the odds of a successful project outcome, but if the success of your project is not something they care about or they refuse to change in spite of the negative impacts their behavior has, don’t hesitate to escalate to someone who is keen on seeing the project succeed and is able to apply the necessary leverage to the offending stakeholder.
But if those approaches don’t work, what next?
Champions carry shields to protect them during duels and you might need to act as a human shield between the stakeholder and your team members. It could be very difficult to force this stakeholder to solely interact with you, but that might be the only way to keep them from affecting team safety.
And if that fails, you have to decide between your personal safety (e.g. your job or financial recognition) and the safety of your team. Drawing a line in the sand and being comfortable with walking away from the role if the situation is not addressed might seem like an extreme action, but positive changes sometimes only happen when one person makes a stand.
“If you make any excuse for not extending psychological safety, you’re choosing to value something else more than human beings.” – Timothy R. Clark, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety