High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety
High-performing teams need great culture. But what makes a culture “great?” When we say “great culture,” we’re not talking about perks and parties. We’re talking about:
- Teams that are high-performing, inclusive, and innovative.
- An organization with no hidden problems or pockets of toxicity.
- Team members are committed to, not compliant with, your culture.
- A place where everyone has a voice, and everyone is listened to.
- Employees that exceed expectations and improve without coaxing.
- Applications pour in while top talent never wants to leave.
- A place where high levels of accountability drive success.
As the foundation of culture, psychological safety will transform your organization and empower your team members to be inclusive and innovative in their everyday interactions. But psychological safety, just like culture, is delicate and dynamic. It’s perishable, not permanent. It requires intention too.
So how do you create an environment where your culture can actually stick? You start with psychological safety. No other cultural initiative or employee development program can succeed without first creating a culture of psychological safety. Research has shown it’s the #1 variable in team performance, the key ingredient for creating inclusive environments, and the heart of high-performing, innovative teams.
So psychological safety will transform your culture. But into what, exactly? Why is cultural transformation so important for high-performing teams? Let’s talk about it.
Assemblies of Accountability
In any team, individuals may work under three different levels of accountability–task, process, and outcome. Those who work at task-level accountability need to be walked through every aspect of the job. They have minimal amounts of responsibility and will likely feel minimal amounts of accountability as a result. But if we consistently perform well at one level, the organization is inclined to let us move upward.
Once a team member shows that they can complete tasks in a satisfactory way, they graduate to process-level accountability: tasks can be strung together in a predictable, consistent process and they will still know what to do. Sure, this grants a level of freedom that task-level accountability doesn’t, but process-level accountability doesn’t create much space for innovation, creativity, or challenging the way things are done.
The third level of accountability is where good employees can become influential innovators: outcome-level accountability. Here how we get our work done, how we accomplish our tasks, and how we manage projects and processes doesn’t matter so much. It’s all about the outcome.
This kind of autonomy and trust, when coupled with psychological safety, gives team members permission to push boundaries. They’ll feel a strong sense of responsibility for the projects and deliverables that are assigned to them. They’ll be motivated to make things better, not because they were asked to, but because they want to.
Why an assembly? Because accountability is contagious. Once you have psychological safety your team members will crave the freedom and creativity that comes from outcome-level accountability. They’ll naturally assemble into an innovative force to be reckoned with.
Sanctuaries of Inclusion
As the basic glue of human society, inclusion safety offers the comforting assurance that you matter. It lets us feel part of a social unit and interact without fear of rejection, embarrassment, or punishment. This boosts resilience and independence.
With high levels of psychological safety, team members won’t waste precious time worrying about whether they’re worthy of being on their team. They’ll know that they belong, and can move forward with confidence that they have a purpose. They’ll feel a sense of equality as hierarchy and status are softened to remove barriers of connection. Bias will have a lesser effect on the organization as a whole, because every team member will be granted irrevocable participation rights. Cultural differences will enhance, not segment, your teams. Diversity’s innovative power can finally be released.
Why a sanctuary? Because the safety of sanctuaries isn’t easily revoked. Team members that know that organizational inclusion will be consistent, and have learned how to act inclusively (with intentionality) will have the foundation necessary to collaborate, ideate, and debate ideas on their merit. When work is a safe place to be, your teams will finally feel comfortable taking the kind of risks that make big dividends.
Celebrations of Vulnerability
Being human is an inherently vulnerable thing. Our vulnerabilities are shaped by past experiences, beliefs, perceptions, fears, and even our goals. They affect how we behave and perform, how we think and feel, and how we interact with others. We can’t entirely avoid the parts of life that make us feel vulnerable, but we sure do want to avoid discomfort and fear.
In order to avoid vulnerable situations, we live our lives in a constant state of threat detection. Our heads are on a swivel, eyes peeled for moments when we could be hurt. Those negative interactions, which we call acts of punished vulnerability, bring out a natural fear response. We hide and try to fly under the radar. Essentially, we’re in survival mode.
But what happens when our acts of vulnerability are rewarded instead of punished? Those positive interactions draw out a performance response and we move towards innovation. We’re finally allowed to thrive at work. Cultures of psychological safety celebrate the vulnerabilities of their participants. People in environments with high levels of psychological safety will feel safe bringing their true, authentic selves to work. They’ll speak up when problems arise. They’ll bounce back from mistakes quickly and iterate after failure. They’ll break out of traditional fear-response and feel ready to perform because they’ll know that innovation is a discovery, not an event.
Why a celebration? Because your team won’t be high-performing if vulnerability is just tolerated, or barely acknowledged. Its power needs to be harnessed and nurtured into a competitive advantage. Psychological safety is what enables that mindset shift.
Forests of Commitment
There’s a major difference between compliance and commitment. Organizations with low levels of psychological safety may be able to coerce their teams into complying with rules and regulations, policies, practices, traditions, and tendencies. But these fear-based tactics and threats of punishment will never foster true inclusion, unleash the power of diversity, or create incubators of innovation. Commitment does that.
When you have a culture of psychological safety in your organization, you enable your employees to be committed to your company values, goals, and initiatives. They’ll feel like they have a stake in the game because they have a voice at the table. They’ll want to contribute because they know that they’ll not only be heard but their ideas will be genuinely considered. Committed employees own the change process, they elevate their colleagues and advocate for their needs. They’re engaged, productive (not because they have to be, but because they want to be), and intentional in their contributions to their team.
Why a forest? Because trees plant seeds, and then they grow together. Commitment, built by psychological safety, will play a large role in both the growth of your teams on a personal level, as well as the growth of your organization as a whole. High-performing teams are growing teams, growing teams are committed teams, and committed teams are teams that know they have psychological safety available.
Incubators of Innovation
The fourth and final stage of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety is Challenger Safety, which is the license to innovate. Organizations are often reluctant to grant challenger safety because it threatens their power structure and speed of operation. While innovation is the lifeblood of growth, it’s a definite cultural challenge. Organizations that operate in dynamic environments and actively offer challenger safety gain a competitive advantage because they can speed up the process of innovation. Without psychological safety (a foundation of inclusion, respect, and permission with the safety to learn, contribute and be candid about change), innovation can't scale on teams.
Why an incubator? Because innovation isn’t a one-and-done event, nor does it give immediate results. High-performing teams will understand that innovation, and discovery in general, will take time. They’ll be willing to invest that time because they know what lies ahead is worth it.
Assemblies of accountability. Sanctuaries of inclusion. Celebrations of vulnerability. Forests of commitment. Incubators of innovation. These are all crucial elements of any high-performing team, in any organization, and in any industry. Without psychological safety, none of these culture changes will stick, and they may never start. If you want to outperform your competitors and exceed your own expectations for success, start with a foundation of psychological safety. It’s what all high-performing teams crave.