Why your organization needs psychological safety

Nov 4, 2021 | 2 comments

I had flown from Chengdu to Beijing for a weekend of planning meetings for my organization. The southern part of China did not have indoor heat, so my body was not used to “roasting” at night, and I had not slept well due to a core temp of about a million degrees. It was a night of bizarre dreams and tossing and turning.

The next morning, after presenting a new initiative, my boss asked what we thought, and before I could filter myself, I said, “I think it’s awful.” My boss looked truly caught off guard that I (and others) saw a few problems with the plan, but he didn’t shut us down; he listened.

This is an example of “psychological safety,” and it’s important for healthy teams and organizations. Of course, I have also experienced situations that were not psychologically safe, and to this day, I find that reality so sad and disappointing in ministry. What got me thinking of my interaction with my boss is the book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant.

In the chapter titled “That’s not the way we’ve always done it,” he writes about NASA and the high cost because “a lack of psychological safety was a persistent problem.” When people saw red flags, they did not speak up, and people literally died. The good news is that if you’re in a system that is not psychologically safe, like NASA, it can change. Before we get to how-to-change, let’s briefly look at what psychological safety is. From the book Think Again:

When you have psychological safety

—See mistakes as an opportunity to learn
—Are willing to take risks and fail
—Speak your mind in meetings
—Openly sharing your struggles
—Trust in your teammates and supervisors
—Stick your neck out


When you don’t have psychological safety

—See mistakes as threats to your career
—Are unwilling to rock the boat
—Keep your ideas to yourself
—Only trust your strengths
—Fear your teammates and supervisors
—Have your head chopped off

So, what did NASA do to improve their psychological safety? Because no one wants to look like a fool or have their positions questioned in a way that’s embarrassing, a new deputy director of flight operations, Ellen Ochoa, started out small:

“To combat the problem and nudge the culture toward learning, she started to carry a 3 x 5 note card in her pocket with questions to ask about every launch and important operational decision. Her list included:

—What leads you to that assumption? Why do you think it is correct? What might happen if it’s wrong?
—What are the uncertainties in your analysis?
—I understand the advantages of your recommendation. What are the disadvantages?”

First of all, I love that she wanted to nudge the culture. If you’re on a team or in a situation that’s not very psychologically safe, just announcing, “We will now be safe!” isn’t going to cut it. Using the types of questions like Ochao asked at a launch, what questions could you ask that would nudge your team, work, family, or organizational culture towards more psychological safety?

When I think back to the meeting where I blurted out, “I think it’s awful,” I absolutely could (and should) have been more tactful in my reaction. But the fact that after a horrible night of sleep and being so hot I wanted to scratch my eyes out, I knew that I could be the worst version of myself and it would still be okay–and that shows the power of psychological safety.

Where you are in a position of leading, how psychologically safe is the culture you’ve created?

Where you are in a position of participating in a system, how could you contribute to the psychological safety?

Below I found a short 6 minute video with the author, Adam Grant, giving one specific idea we can all try.

Because all of us in cross-cultural work benefit by a posture of learning, I recommend Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant.

Picture one of the teams you’re on, and review the lists above. How psychologically safe is it on a scale of 1 to 10? If you’re in a really unhealthy system, is it time to leave? If you’re in a psychologically safe system, who could you thank today?


For the next three weeks, Global Trellis is focusing on organizational health. We kick off our three weeks on this Soul Tending Tuesday with a unique way for you to tend your soul . . . a survey.

I know it sounds crazy! 

But we want to gather information on organizational health so we can serve you better AND create a survey that is of value to YOU. 

So, we created a survey that incorporates elements of Ignatian Examen where you prayerfully reflect on your organization. As a thank you, five of you will be drawn to win a $10 Amazon gift card

You can take the survey here. It will be open through next Soul Tending Tuesday, November 9th. May the Lord bless you in a place you may not expect to meet Him . . . this survey.

Photo by Headway on Unsplash

Amy Young

Life enthusiast. Author. Sports lover. Jesus follower. Supporting cross-cultural work.

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2 Comments

  1. T

    I’m sad to think about a specific team era (each year had some change in personnel and dynamics) when we understood later that we didn’t have enough psychological safety in our team for the new members. I’m still unsure of lots of things…how do you allow people to go through culture shock and feel they can express their frustrations while others have been there for years and are joyfully thriving and loving all things local? How do we know when the problem is the team culture or just that one unit that didn’t adapt? What about when the person struggling is also more of a people pleaser that doesn’t show their struggles? I’ve decided that if we lead again, I will repeatedly say before and after new people arrive that we expect them to struggle and have failures, that we expect them not to know everything. It seemed that we didn’t communicate that enough, which didn’t allow some people to feel they could be transparent with us. So, maybe more one on one mentoring with the new people, so that the older ones don’t feel like they are sitting in a complaining session all the time? Maybe these words will stir up ideas for more posts? I appreciate you inviting us to consider these important subjects.

    Reply
    • Amy Young

      T, these are good questions! I have also seen times when “old hands” are not actually doing well and then newbies join and ARE doing well and not sure how to respect the old hands without being drown in stuff. As I reread your questions, I think you’re right, that any one of these could/should be turned into a post so that we keep slowly unpacking these situations.

      Reply

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