Reframing your mental state, being clear on your desired impact and outcome, then asking open-ended questions, while giving choices, rewarding concessions, and allowing space to respond will yield psychological safety.
A two-year research study by Google into high performing teams discovered that the number one criteria for success is creating psychological safety; that is, do people feel safe enough to take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed? Given its fundamental importance, how can leaders create a climate of psychological safety within their teams and the broader organisation?
There are five practical points to be aware of during any interaction where you want to build a ‘safe’ environment: What is my state? What is the impact I want to have or outcome I want to achieve? What choices can I give? What concessions can I make? And perhaps most importantly, what questions will I ask?
1) Learn to Manage Your Own State
The first point is to be aware of your state. How do you feel? Are you feeling anxious or aggressive? Or are you feeling calm and grounded? It is important to become more self-aware so you can learn to manage and regulate your own emotions. Our states send signals about our intent and can stimulate a similar response in the other person. If you are anxious, stressed, or distracted, the other person will likely sense that feeling in you and this can then make them anxious or defensive. If you are feeling anxious, express it. Neuroscience research shows that expressing our negative emotions reduces the intensity in the amgydala, thus making us better able to manage ourselves. The key to creating a climate where psychological safety can occur is to get yourself into as calm and grounded a state as possible. To do this, practise the four deep breaths technique. Stand up, and to a count of five, breathe deep into your diaphragm. Then breathe out slowly to a count of five. Repeat four times and notice the calming effect. Another powerful technique to manage your state is to empathise with the other person’s point of view. Can you ‘put yourself in their shoes’? Why might they be acting the way they are? Under which circumstances might you act in the same way? Empathising with others is a powerful way of reducing the negative emotions you may be feeling and assisting you in engaging in a ‘safe-space’ dialogue where you are less emotionally-charged. Practising applying the Rogerian thinking of Unconditional Positive Regard (the basic acceptance and respect for everyone to exist in the universe at the same time) can aid in separating the person from the problem and shifting your state.
2) Be Clear Yet Flexible on the Desired Impact and Outcome
When Alice is walking through wonderland, she comes to a fork in the road and looks up into the tree where the Cheshire Cat is sitting. She asks the cat, “Which road should I take?” He responds that it all depends on where she wants to go. She replies that she does not know where she wants to go at which point the Cheshire Cat says then it does not matter which road she takes. So it is important to be clear about the impact and outcome you ideally want before you begin the conversation. If you know what it is you want to achieve, then you are better able to manage the conversation towards this result. Often our intention and our impact can be at odds and this is usually because we have not managed our state properly. If you have no idea of the impact or outcome you are seeking, then you can easily lose track or become derailed. One stipulation is that once you know what it is that you desire, it is key to remain flexible in case some information arises that you were not aware of and you may then need to adapt your goal. Rigidity in outcome can lead to defensive responses on both sides and an escalation in the process. Know your desired impact and outcome and stay open to adapting your goal based on what you discover in the moment from the interaction.
3) Practise Giving Choice
Leading change in yourself and your organisation begins with you making a conscious choice thereby driving engagement and commitment. A key aspect of engaging with others is to give them options from which they can choose. It is important for the health of the human brain that people feel a sense of autonomy and this can be stimulated by creating an environment where they can select from the options they are given. A leader can stimulate increased psychological safety by setting the frame or the boundaries, and then giving freedom within the frame. If you exert your power and tell the other person what they need to do, this creates compliance. They will do what you ask because they have to. By giving choice, you are able to create commitment because the person chooses to do what you are asking within the boundaries that you define. A simple example is when you are dealing with children. You know how it goes—in the morning you tell your child to get dressed, they say ‘No’, you say ‘Get dressed now!’, they say ‘No!’ and the volume increases but the result is the same with frustration arising on both sides. Instead, ask your child, “Do you want to get dressed before or after breakfast?”, “Do you want to wear the red top or the blue top?”, “Do you want to get dressed by yourself or do you want me to help you?” It is the same with adults. People generally tend to choose from the options they are given. However, in most cases, they do not like to be told what to do. Autonomy is important for psychological well-being. Giving choice even in difficult situations is a powerful tool. By giving choice, you treat others with respect and create engagement.
4) Invoke the Law of Reciprocity by Recognising and Rewarding Concessions
The next skill, and possibly one of the most difficult, is learning the art of concession-making through the use of words. When you make a concession, you invoke the universal law of reciprocity: you give something and you get something in return. However, in the middle of a dialogue, you have to really listen and stay calm in order to recognise the subtlety of a concession from the other person that you must then reward. For example, if you make a tough point and the other person acknowledges it, thank them for the recognition before moving onto the next point. Words like “thank you” or “I appreciate that” are concessions that can invoke a defusing of a tense atmosphere. Making the first verbal concession makes it more likely that the other person will give you a concession. Working on this area not only improves your concession-making skills, it also improves your ability to listen actively—both of which are vital skills for creating a psychologically safe space.
5) Be Curious and Leverage the Power of Questions
The 5th technique, and the most powerful of all, is practising the art of asking open-ended questions. A dialogue should be exactly that—an exchange between two people to discover together. Many team meetings become a series of monologues where one person speaks for often longer than others can hear, and then the next person continues with a ‘Yes, but’ and launches into another monologue. In order to keep it a dialogue as opposed to a monologue, your most powerful tool is the open-ended question. State what you want to say in clear yet respectful terms and then ask a question—i.e. How does that sound to you? What is your view of what happened? How did you understand the agreement? This method keeps people engaged and, in a difficult situation, reduces the tension and emotion. After asking a question, remember to pause and wait for a response. You do not need to fill the silence with more words. Wait patiently for the other person to reply. Silence can also be a powerful tool. And remember that you do not have to have all the answers. Be curious. In the words of IMD Professor Bill Fischer, co-author of Virtuoso Teams, “focus on being interested versus interesting.”
Practice makes (almost) Perfect
The beauty of the component parts of this approach to creating psychological safety is that you can practise one or more of them on a daily basis. Your brain does not fully distinguish between practice and the actual event in terms of the wiring and so practising anything beforehand will lead to a better outcome. While perfection is unattainable and not the goal, repetition improves your performance. Building these techniques into your routine will aid you in then using them when you find yourself under pressure. Commit to putting yourself into the best mental state and being clear on your desired impact and outcome, then asking open-ended questions, while giving choice, rewarding concessions, and giving space for people to respond. By implementing these steps, you will discover much deeper and more effective conversations that create the space for psychological safety to flourish.
Kohlrieser G, Goldsworthy S, Coombe D, 2012. Care to Dare, Unleashing astonishing potential through Secure Base Leadership, Wiley & Sons 2012.
McFarland W, Goldsworthy S, 2013. Choosing Change, How leaders and organizations drive results one person at a time, McGraw Hill.
Rozovsky J, 17 November 2015. The five keys to a successful Google team, https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/.
Ms Goldsworthy and Mr McFarland are co-authors of the award-winning book—Choosing Change: How Leaders and Organizations Drive Results One Person at a Time.
Copyright © 2018 Singapore Institute of Management