Research has shown that the most important factor in effective team working and high performing teams is psychological safety – in other words, the security to take risks, be honest, and potentially mess up, knowing that you’re still ‘safe’ within your team. I’ve seen this research most often applied to teams within the tech sector, particularly around adopting Agile ways of working – but it’s also essential for creating a broader culture of inclusion. Creating psychological safety inevitably touches on HR, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and many other areas. With such a broad remit, where do you start? It’s a multifaceted answer but one of the essential baseline ingredients is clear expectations.
To put it simply: You have to know what’s expected of you to know if what you’re doing is good enough. Feeling unsure about what’s expected of you is one of the fastest ways to erode psychological safety, particularly if you’re suffering from Imposter Syndrome (pretty much everyone is at some point) or already feel like an ‘outsider’ in some way. We all feel clumsy and awkward trying to navigate expectations if we don’t know what they are. At the same time, you might not want to ask for clarification, lest you ‘prove’ that you don’t belong by asking something you think you ‘should already know’. All of this can lead to feeling anxious, uncomfortable, and fundamentally not psychologically safe. It’s pretty much a given that when people feel like this, they aren’t going to be doing their best work. When a team or people in it are holding back for fear of failure, innovation is virtually impossible because no one is willing to go out on a limb to try something new. Uncertainty and unclear expectations exacerbate all of those anxieties.
To create the kind of clear expectations – both spoken and unspoken – that support a culture of psychological safety where all team members can thrive, here are a few areas to consider:
- Clear Success Metrics – This is (hopefully!) a given. Whether you use KPIS, OKRs, or any other method, everyone needs to know what success looks like in their role. They also need to know what happens if someone (anyone) in that role does/n’t meet those metrics and what kind of support is available to help them get there.
- A Strong Onboarding Experience – Onboarding a new joiner is a crucial moment to introduce both the overt and unspoken expectations of a company, its culture, and its teams. Use it wisely. To reinforce a culture of clarity and psychological safety give new joiners information they can refer back to (it eases the pressure to remember everything), a buddy they can ask informal questions, and space to adjust with a bit of alone time to get set up and review what they’ve learned. This helps ensure that you cater for different learning styles and personality types – which goes a long way towards making everyone feel safe and included.
- Defined Ways of Working & Paths of Escalation – People need to know where their work fits into a process and, crucially, who to go to if they have a problem to help them solve it. Setting the expectation that issues are to be expected, are nothing to hide, and are handled as a team helps to create psychological safety across all levels. Nobody wants to be surprised with a problem that’s already spiralled out of control and the stress and anxiety of trying to hide a mistake for fear of retribution is horrendous. Worst of all, it solves nothing. If you’re in a leadership role, make it clear to your team that it’s your job to help solve the trickier problems and that you want and expect them to come to you. No matter what your role, remember that success only exists when it’s shared.
- Frequent and Direct Feedback – This is so weirdly difficult for so many of us, yet it’s crucial to let people know how they’re performing against expectations and how they can improve – not to ‘punish’ or belittle them, but to help them and the team succeed. Giving and receiving feedback well – frequently, honestly, fairly, and equitably – lets people know that you believe in their potential and that you value their input. (Read ‘Radical Candor’ by Kim Scott for a brilliant exploration of this!) One of the most successful ways to implement this kind of a feedback culture is through modeling it with the leadership team. Leaders need to model giving and (perhaps more importantly!) asking for and receiving honest feedback with grace. When a leader is defensive or a company tries to cover up or brush over mistakes in the leadership team, they set the tone that mistakes are not ok and hierarchy is more important than honesty – pretty much the antithesis of creating psychological safety. No matter what your level in a company, set a precedent of asking for feedback in the moment and expressing gratitude for it – even if you need some time to digest it. Remember that for some people, it can feel as difficult to give feedback as to receive it.
- Welcome and Farewell Rituals – These might seem like small things, but they are tangible evidence of a company’s culture and how team members are valued. You can learn a lot about a company from how new joiners are consistently introduced. Imagine, for example, that you’re the only woman in her 20s on a team of men in their 30s and you already feel out of place. If you aren’t given a ‘Welcome Breakfast’ but a man hired 2 weeks after you is, it can reinforce your feelings of being an outsider. These things matter. Similarly with leavers. Although not everyone wants a leaving party, nor is it always appropriate, it’s important to set the expectation that everyone’s contribution will be honored in some way. Ideally, with mutual respect and in a way that feels appropriate to the situation. Acknowledging someone’s contribution and the fact that they’re leaving, even if they’re let go, is important for those who remain. When someone is let go, it inevitably sets an expectation for how other team members might be treated in a similar situation. As such, it can be a pivotal moment for creating an atmosphere of respect and safety rather than pervasive fear.
The areas highlighted above are a starting point for an integrated strategy to promote clarity, psychological safety, and inclusion. Connecting the dots between these 3 objectives will create higher performing, more effective teams with happier people and higher retention rates. What other areas have you found important to consider?
If your company needs some help assessing or improving how your policies, processes, and ways of working contribute to a culture of psychological safety and inclusion, get in touch. I’d love to help!
To help your team be higher performing, you need clear expectations to create psychological safety and a culture of inclusion. Be clear about what’s expected – from the metrics, to the standards of work, to the norms of behaviour. If you’re leading a team, model the behaviour you want to see. If you’re in a team with a new team member, give them feedback as frequently, directly, and kindly as possible. Welcome new joiners and bid farewell to leavers in a way that honors the individual, their contribution, and the teams they’re joining or leaving.