What Psychological Safety actually means for teams [Snow]

Psychological safety is one of the hottest terms in the People field in recent years, yet there’s still a lot of ambiguity about what it means and how to create it. Shane Snow took a good stab at advancing this conversation in: 

What Psychological Safety actually means for teams

Snow starts off with Edmundson’s definition of “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.

A big chunk of the ambiguity around psychological safety stems from the various ways in which “safe for interpersonal risk-taking” can be interpreted so he offers two powerful distinctions to make reduce some of it: 

  1. Safety is not comfort (and discomfort is not danger)— You can be safe and uncomfortable. As a matter of fact, those are the required conditions for growth experiences. He illustrates that using the 2×2 above and offers a simple example of working with a personal trainer at the gym — you’re safe, but uncomfortable. Conflating the two terms leads to an overly broad definition of safety which reduces psychological safety: you view other’s disagreement with you as risking your safety, and/or are afraid to voice your disagreement in order to not jeopardize the safety of others. He references Haidt and Lukianoff’s work which discusses the downsides of mistaking cognitive friction for violence at length. 
  2. Not all interpersonal risk-taking is good — interpersonal risk-taking for the sake of interpersonal risk-taking is not helpful. Intentionally not delivering on a commitment, or shouting down someone who says something uncomfortable requires taking an interpersonal-risk, but it’s not taken in support of the overall benefit of the group so it’s not helpful. Suggesting a new idea, or voicing your disagreement also requires taking an interpersonal risk. But that risk is taken in support of the overall benefit of the group. 

From there Snow goes to explore the relationship between psychological safety and trust: 

I’m not sure that I’m bought into this distinction where trust is an attribute of the relationship between two people and psychological safety is an attribute of relationship between the whole group, since the relationship between the whole group is the sum of the relationship between every two people in the group. However, exploring that analogy does lead him from what psychological safety is to how it gets created, and the critical role that a benevolent or charitable disposition plays in that process. 

But as we think about the behaviors that suggest high psychological safety, a charitable disposition seems to be insufficient. Here, I want to add and extend Snow’s work and I think the hint for the missing ingredient can be found in Google’s definition of psychological safety: “team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other”. A charitable disposition gives you guidance on how to respond to others, but doesn’t provide you with much guidance on how to engage/show up yourself. This is where vulnerability and the importance of personal disclosures come in. 

If I was to sum up the behavioral guidance for creating psychological safety, it would be: show up vulnerably; respond benevolently and charitably

Rephrasing some of Snow’s examples, this is how it’d look like: 

  • Admit your mistakes; don’t hold others’ against them personally.
  • Speak up if you think something is wrong; don’t use others’ speaking up against them. 
  • Ask for help when you need; support others when they ask for it.
  • Confess when you’ve changed your mind about something; applaud others’ intellectual humility when they change theirs. 
  • Weigh the best interests of the group when making a decision; trust that they do the same. 
What Psychological Safety actually means for teams [Snow]

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