Psychological safety means being able to show and employ oneself without fear of negative consequences of status, career, or self-worth—we should be comfortable being ourselves in our work setting. A 2015 study at Google found that successful teams provide psychological safety for team members, that team members are able to depend on one another, there is structure and clarity around roles and responsibilities, and people are doing work that is both meaningful and impactful to them.
Psychological safety goes hand in hand with diversity, which is the recognition that everyone is unique and can add value in different ways. The dimensions of personal uniqueness include, but are not limited to, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, agility, physical abilities, socioeconomic status, religious beliefs, political beliefs, and other ideological beliefs. Diversity is critical to a team’s success because it enables greater innovation. The more diverse our team, the better our ideas will be, the better our work will be, and the more we’ll learn from each other.
There are several strategies that enable us to nurture psychological safety and diversity within a team:
- Be respectful. Everyone is different, with different experiences and different preferences. None of us is the smartest person in the room. Respect what other people know that we don’t and recognize that they have a different and important point of view.
- Be humble. In many ways, this is key to having a learning mindset and to being respectful.
- Be ethical and trustworthy. People will feel safer working and interacting with us if they trust us. Trust is built over time through a series of actions and can be broken instantly by one action.
- Make it safe to fail. There is a catchy phrase in the agile world called “fail fast.” We prefer Al Shalloway’s advice, “Make it safe to fail so you can learn fast.” The idea is to not hesitate to try something, even if it may fail. But the focus should be on learning safely and quickly. Note that “safely” refers both to psychological safety and the safety of our work. The aim of guided continuous improvement (GCI) is to try out new ways of working (WoW) with the expectation that they will work for us, while being prepared to learn from our experiment if it fails.