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The Key to Thriving Teams: Cultivating Psychological Safety

Published on May 20, 2024
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When you think of a thriving organization, do you imagine meetings filled with blind agreement, with little questioning, little opportunity for brainstorming and new ideas, and a crushing fear of failure amongst the team members? Probably not! Thriving teams and organizations foster the concept of psychological safety. By understanding and cultivating psychological safety, leaders can unlock the full potential of their teams, encouraging an environment where creativity, resilience, and collaboration flourish. This perspective elevates the collective output and propels the organization to stand out in a competitive market landscape.

A psychologically safe environment is a place that fosters growth and is a cornerstone for thriving teams. In this blog, we will explore psychological safety, its definition, why it matters, and how to cultivate it within your law firm. We will also examine how it can unlock your team’s full potential, leading to greater innovation, collaboration, and success.

What is Psychological Safety?

This pivotal notion, deeply researched and championed by scholars like Amy Edmondson, involves creating a work environment where team members feel entirely comfortable expressing themselves, sharing concerns, and contributing ideas without fear of repercussion or ridicule. A psychologically safe workplace has an ethical and supportive culture and is a fertile ground for innovation, engagement, and productivity. It’s the secret sauce that distinguishes good companies from truly great ones.

Psychological safety ensures individuals feel supported and valued. The essence of psychological safety lies in the assurance that no matter what new idea is suggested or what innovative process is undertaken to accomplish a task, the team will provide unwavering support. This kind of support encourages creativity, drives productivity, and ultimately leads to a more dynamic and innovative workplace where every team member feels empowered to contribute to their fullest potential.

The Impact of Psychological Safety on Business Success

Comparing two businesses, one with psychological safety as a hallmark and another lacking this fundamental element, reveals stark differences in organizational health and performance. In the absence of psychological safety, team members often feel inhibited and fearful, leading to a culture where ideas are kept silent and innovation stagnates. These organizations typically experience high turnover rates, low employee engagement, and struggle to adapt to market changes.

On the other hand, businesses that prioritize psychological safety foster an atmosphere of trust and openness. Employees in these environments feel valued and empowered, resulting in higher levels of creativity, productivity, and adaptability. Notably, these companies tend to outperform their peers, demonstrating that psychological safety is not just a “nice-to-have,” but a critical driver of competitive advantage.

Why does Psychological Safety Matter?

Psychological safety has been extensively researched and proven to be essential for team success. In fact, Google’s extensive study on high-performing teams found that psychological safety was the most critical factor in building successful teams. When individuals feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to take risks, share ideas, and be open to feedback. This creates a culture where collaboration and innovation thrive, leading to improved team performance and overall success for the organization.

Forward-thinking companies are increasingly recognizing the significance of psychological safety and are making concerted efforts to embed it within their corporate culture. These organizations understand that fostering an environment of openness and mutual respect is not a luxury, but a strategic imperative. Objective data supports this shift. Research conducted by leading institutions shows a direct correlation between psychological safety and enhanced team performance, innovation, and employee satisfaction. Studies have consistently demonstrated that teams operating in psychologically safe environments report better engagement levels, lower turnover rates, and significantly higher project success rates compared to their counterparts in more traditional, hierarchical organizations. For leaders aiming to cultivate a competitive and resilient organization, understanding and implementing the principles of psychological safety is paramount. This approach nurtures a more dynamic and innovative workforce and positions the company as a desirable workplace, attracting top talent in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Building a Psychologically Safe Environment

Creating a psychologically safe workplace is a critical challenge for law firm leaders. Recognizing and addressing the unique pressures and demanding environments inherent to legal practices, leaders are tasked with the pivotal role of fostering an atmosphere where team members feel genuinely supported and encouraged to express their thoughts and concerns openly. For those leaders eager to transform their law firm into a culture of innovation, collaboration, and competitive success, understanding how to build and sustain psychological safety within your team is essential. This guide is designed to equip you with the understanding and tools needed to cultivate a culture that values and thrives on psychological safety.

Creating a psychologically safe workplace starts with leadership. As a leader, it is vital to promote an environment of trust, openness, and inclusivity. Leadership that prioritizes and encourages honest and open communication and embraces feedback, or what we like to call “feedforward,” is how psychological safety is built. Creating this type of environment takes time and consistency from the leadership team. Here are some of the fundamental building blocks you’ll need to develop in order to create a more psychologically safe workplace:

  • Establish Open Lines of Communication: Leaders can foster psychological safety by ensuring that all team members have equal access to share their thoughts and ideas without fear of retribution. This means regularly encouraging feedback and creating multiple channels where employees can express themselves freely and confidentially. This practice takes guts and patience. It can be jarring for leaders when their team disagrees or questions decisions. By creating an environment where expressing those opinions is seen as safe and encouraged, leaders open doors to innovation and much needed perspective. Sometimes, your team just needs to be heard, even if the idea isn’t the right one right now.
  • Promote a Culture of Acknowledgment and Respect: Recognizing individual and team contributions reinforces the value of everyone’s input. Leaders should actively celebrate successes and constructively address failures as learning opportunities. This approach helps to build mutual respect and encourages ongoing engagement and innovation. It’s not only leaders who must respect and acknowledge others. Top performing organizations ensure peer to peer respect and acknowledgement as well. It’s not a psychological safe environment if a leader promotes feedback and innovation, but fellow team members are disrespectful and dismissive! Consider implementing an honor guide to shape how team members speak to and treat each other.
  • Implement Regular Check-Ins and Support Mechanisms: By scheduling regular one-on-one or team check-ins, leaders can stay informed about their team’s challenges and well-being. Offering support and resources to address both professional and personal concerns demonstrates a commitment to the holistic well-being of employees.
  • Encourage Risk-Taking and Normalize Failure: Creating an environment where taking calculated risks is encouraged and where failure is seen as a part of the learning process is crucial. Leaders should communicate that setbacks are not only acceptable, but are expected in the pursuit of innovation. This mindset shift helps to alleviate the fear of making mistakes and fosters a culture of continuous improvement and innovation.

Stepping Outside of Your Comfort Zone

Everyone has heard that you must get out of your comfort zone to grow. What does that mean, and how does it relate to psychological safety? In Spark Brilliance, a must-read book for all leaders, Jackie Insinger discusses this idea. She examines the concept of being pushed out of your comfort zone to grow, but not so far that it elicits a fear response. When we are in a fear state, it is harder to learn and grow. Insinger says, “Growth doesn’t need to mean getting completely out of your comfort zone. It’s possible to have both – the strengthening effect of bumping up against discomfort and coming through it, and the safety of a calm, rational mind that can soak up new information and learn the lessons it offers.”

As you begin intentionally cultivating a more psychologically safe environment at your organization, it can be uncomfortable for both leaders and team members alike. It can be uncomfortable for leadership to allow team members to come to them and share difficult workplace situations, provide feedback on a process they find to not be working, or share how they believe the organization can be run better. What the leader does with that information is truly where that psychological safety is built. This is where vulnerability and trust are so important. These things take time, but it is the consistency of it that can really allow for growth in the future.

Similarly, team members can also struggle with the process. Encouraging the provision of open and honest feedback in every situation can be particularly daunting, requiring individuals to step out of their comfort zones significantly. This involves not just occasional check-ins but a consistent effort to communicate transparently, even when the feedback might be difficult to hear or deliver. It’s about building a foundation of trust and openness, where team members feel secure enough to express their thoughts and concerns without fear of retribution. This level of openness can be incredibly challenging to achieve, but it is crucial for fostering a supportive and collaborative team environment.

Understanding Psychological Safety for Remote Team Members

I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss how to build and maintain psychological safety for remote work since many organizations face the remote work challenge daily. Maintaining psychological safety in remote work can be difficult, but staying truly connected with team members who do not come into the office is imperative. Physical distances can quickly dissolve emotional connections if not nurtured or brought to the attention of those interacting daily with team members who are working remotely. The need for trust, open communication, and mutual support takes center stage like never before in the realm of remote work. Some ways to be sure that you are building psychological safety:

  • Establish communication norms: Discuss expectations of response times, set up Slack or team channels, and ensure that everyone knows how to reach others best.
  • Encourage open dialogue: Create regular opportunities for team members to share their thoughts, concerns, and feedback without fear of judgment.
  • Have Fun: These are still your team members, so it’s just as important to ensure that they feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Having fun as a team is a great way to accomplish this. Some team-building ideas include virtual coffee dates, lunch hours, and regular team member check-ins.

Unleashing Potential Through Psychological Safety

Leaders recognize psychological safety as a component of a healthy work environment and a strategic lever to gain a competitive advantage. In a rapidly evolving business landscape, those at the helm who harness the power of psychological safety are unlocking unprecedented levels of innovation, productivity, and loyalty within their teams. They understand that when team members do not fear judgment for proposing novel ideas or admitting mistakes, creativity flourishes, and so does the pace of growth and learning. This secure foundation cultivates an atmosphere where loyalty and contentment are byproducts of an engaged and empowered workforce. Teams that operate under the umbrella of psychological safety annihilate competition not merely by doing more but by innovating faster, adapting quicker, and remaining unfazed in the face of challenges. In essence, psychological safety has become the secret weapon of forward-thinking leaders, enabling them to create an environment where happiness and engagement are the norms, not the exceptions. These teams are setting new standards for what is achievable when human potential is fully unleashed.

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