5 ways leaders can boost psychological safety on teams

Want a happier, more productive team? Here's how to create a psychologically safe environment that fosters acceptance, diversity, and collaboration
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remote work culture

“Welcome to the family.” That’s how it should feel right from the start when new people join the team at any company.

Of course, relating a workplace to a home is an ambitious promise. To live up to it, you need to ensure that your people experience a safe place where they can be who they are with no fear of being punished or humiliated for sharing their ideas, raising concerns, or making mistakes.

Psychological safety: 5 tips for leaders

During the past five years at Futurice, I’ve been learning to make our organization psychologically safe. Here are my key takeaways:

1. Create space for transparency

Psychological safety starts with the experience of belonging – one of the most basic needs of every human being. However, it is difficult for people to feel that they are part of a shared story if they lack visibility to the most important discussions and decision-making processes in their organization.

To address this, I’ve found two things to be especially effective:

  • Sharing openly as much as you can as early as possible, even when you feel you don’t have time
  • Co-creating systems that increase transparency in the whole organization.

Both take a lot of time, but it always pays off. I schedule weekly updates with my team and also actively use, and invite others to use, systems we have built for improving the flow of information.

Some of the systems are very basic, such as our Power tool, which lets our employees see all client projects, team setups, current staffing situations and business forecasts, and order books. Others are more advanced; for example, we built a Bubble Burster tool to help people to search digital footprints in our shared calendars and identify the most knowledgeable resource for particular topics.

[ Where is your team's digital transformation work stalling? Get the eBook: What's slowing down your Digital Transformation? 8 questions to ask. ]

2. Help people connect with each other

Belonging means not only knowing what’s going on but also feeling close to others. While technology can help with this, it’s not enough. Creating intimacy during these unprecedented hybrid times can be challenging, but small things can go a long way.

For example, at Futurice we make a point of sharing our hobbies and interests when we meet new people. We do this internally with new recruits as well as with our clients. Recently, our new CEO introduced himself and shared not only his work history but also his passion for renovation, football, and alpine skiing. Sharing hobbies in a work meeting might seem like a waste of time, but finding common interests helps people connect: Throughout the pandemic, clubs formed around shared interests such as golf, knitting, and ice swimming have helped keep our teams’ spirits up.

3. Create a feedback culture with small daily habits

To help people feel comfortable voicing their opinions, make it a regular practice. My team has found it useful to collect feedback from our daily activities – for example, after every sales meeting with our clients, we book time to give each other feedback: How did it go? Where did we succeed? What could we do better next time? And importantly: What did we learn?

While we use many other methods to regularly collect feedback, these small daily routines are a powerful way to help everyone see that their views are valued and develop the skill of giving and receiving feedback.

[ Are you a toxic boss – or are you dealing with one? Read also: How to deal with a toxic boss. ]

4. Learn to love criticism (or at least accept it)

One of my greatest challenges as a leader has been learning to cherish negative feedback and differing opinions. Often our first reaction to criticism is to be defensive or try to justify why we are right. However, to build a psychologically safe environment you must learn to appreciate all contributions, even when they aren’t what you expect or conflict with your own view.

Start with a genuine ‘thank you,’ which gives you a little time to breathe and resist the intuitive emotional reaction to criticism. It’s also OK to tactfully let others know if you are having a hard time accepting their viewpoint and need to revisit it later.

5. Have the courage to intervene

Last, and perhaps most important, part of creating psychological safety is having the courage to speak up when someone acts inappropriately – regardless of where they exist in the organizational hierarchy.

We’ve all been there: You’re in a meeting and someone makes an offensive joke or comment – and nobody seems to notice. It’s during these moments that true leadership is tested by offering an opportunity to intervene and help the offending individual understand that they are breaking the rules. This is important because not speaking up will be interpreted as silent approval, and any culture that approves of or accepts discrimination will never be psychologically safe.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Eeva Raita is Head of Strategy & Culture at the International tech company Futurice, with headquarters in Helsinki, Finland.  Eeva leads an international team responsible for helping both Futurice itself and client organizations to succeed in the digital era by cultivating better work cultures and leadership. She has a Ph.D.

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