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The Shared Strength: Psychological Safety as the Key to Unlocking Team Success



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INTRODUCTION

 

In today’s knowledge-driven world, the most valuable workplaces are those that actively encourage open communication and idea sharing. This concept, championed by Amy Edmondson, fosters a culture of creative problem-solving where unconventional approaches are not just tolerated but embraced. Here, the focus is on finding new perspectives and pursuing seemingly “impossible” solutions. (Edmondson 2004, 239-272.)

 

Consider the case of Netflix as an illustrative example. At its inception, Netflix could be simplistically described as a ‘movie theatre experience without the theatre.’ To skeptics, this model may have appeared unfeasible; nonetheless, empirical evidence demonstrates its extraordinary success, as it has emerged as a preeminent platform in the realm of movie streaming. This instance exemplifies the significance of nurturing environments that incubate ‘impossible’ ideas and transmute them into tangible, successful innovations. (Voigt, Buliga, Michl, Voigt, Buliga, & Michl, 2017, 127-141.)

 

In the realm of business and team dynamics, this paradigm shift towards embracing and actualizing seemingly improbable concepts is not merely beneficial but essential for the evolution and sustainability of enterprises in an increasingly complex and competitive market. It is incumbent upon leaders and organizational structures to create and maintain spaces where creativity and risk-taking are not only permitted but are a celebrated aspect of the organizational ethos.

 

It is paramount to establish an environment that promotes the uninhibited exchange of innovative, even seemingly radical, ideas without the immediate concern for practical constraints. Within team settings, it is not uncommon for individuals to withhold potentially valuable insights due to the apprehension of negative judgment or dismissal. Fostering a culture where all members are encouraged to contribute ideas, irrespective of their immediate feasibility, is critical. This practice may not always yield directly actionable results; however, it catalyzes intellectual synergy. When team members engage with and refine these preliminary ideas, a collaborative process ensues.

 

This essay endeavors to examine the construct of psychological safety, delineate its significance within team dynamics, explore various strategies for cultivating such an environment.

 

Definition of Psychological Safety

 

The construct of psychological safety has been defined diversely within the academic literature. Amy Edmondson articulates this construct as an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a workplace setting. Interpersonal risk involves the chance of facing negative reactions from others when one shares ideas or questions in a group, potentially leading to harm to one’s reputation or relationships. It encompasses a personal introspection where individuals gauge the potential repercussions of engaging in behaviors such as soliciting feedback, challenging the usual way of doing things, or proposing innovative ideas. Edmondson posits that the absence of fear of criticism, shame, or embarrassment as a response to such actions is representing the presence of psychological safety within the environment. (Edmondson, Kramer, & Cook, 2004, 239-272.)

 

Similarly, William Kahn found that psychological safety was perceived as the comfort of being oneself and utilizing one’s abilities without the risk of harming one’s reputation, position, or career prospects. Individuals felt secure in environments where they believed that their active participation would not lead to any detriment to their professional standing. (Kahn 1990, 692-724.)

 

In summary, Edmondson and Kahn agreed that psychological safety is a critical organizational resource that allows individuals to make use of their capacities without fear of possible negative consequences. It is such an environment that allows empowerment toward authenticity and engagement, further nurturing collaboration for growing innovation. (Edmondson, Kramer, & Cook 2004, 239-272; Kahn 1990, 692-724.)

 

Psychological Safety in Teams

 

Team psychological safety is conceptualized as a collective state within a team, analogous to an atmospheric perception shared among members, as articulated by Kozlowski and Ilgen (Kozlowski & Ilgen 2006, 86, as cited in Schulte, Cohen, & Klein 2012, 564–581). This shared perception ensures that when a team operates within a psychologically safe environment, each member anticipates a baseline of respect and acceptance from their colleagues. Such an environment is one where individuals are not at risk of experiencing humiliation or retribution from their peers for openly expressing their thoughts, admitting mistakes, or acknowledging their limitations. (Schulte, Cohen, & Klein 2012, 564–581.)

 

The implications of psychological safety are twofold and profoundly beneficial. On one hand, it enables members to exhibit full engagement with their roles, allowing for the integration of their voices, innovative capacities, emotional contributions, and self-identities into their professional activities. This aspect has been thoroughly discussed in the works of scholars like Kahn, who emphasize the significant correlation between psychological safety and the degree of personal investment individuals are willing to make in their roles (Kahn 1990, as cited in Schulte, Cohen, & Klein 2012, 564–581).

 

On the other hand, psychological safety is instrumental in creating a fertile ground for team learning processes. Such processes are essential for the continuous improvement and ultimate effectiveness of team functions, as evidenced by research from Edmondson, who highlighted the link between a team’s learning capacity and its performance outcomes (Edmondson 1999, as cited in Schulte, Cohen, & Klein 2012, 564–581).

 

Despite these advancements, there is a noted scarcity in the literature regarding the nuanced dynamics at play in the formation of team members’ perceptions of psychological safety. Moreover, how these perceptions subsequently shape the intricate tapestry of team interactions remains an area ripe for exploration. This gap signifies a pivotal opportunity for both theoretical development and empirical research to deepen our understanding of the psychological undercurrents that propel team synergy and cohesiveness in organizational settings. (Schulte, Cohen, & Klein 2012, 564–581.)

 

Case study

Edmondson undertook a study of real work teams within an organization that featured a variety of team setups to confirm the hypotheses within the team learning model. Using both qualitative and quantitative research approaches, she investigated and measured the components of the model. Preliminary observations and conversations within the organization revealed a notable variation in the extent of learning behaviors across teams, making it a suitable environment for examining the learning process and determining the factors that enhance team learning. (Edmondson 1999, 350-383.)

 

“Office Design Incorporated” (ODI) is an office furniture manufacturer, known for its creative products and management, having a manpower force of approximately 5,000. The same is selected for the reason that serves as the research site. The type of ODI teams, established in 1979 under the plan to develop the inclination to encourage involvement in interdisciplinary activities among employees, was: The major part was nature in functional teams, such as the managers/supervisors and their direct reports, which consisted of the sales, management, and manufacturing teams working within respective functional departments. These teams shared goals and relied on each other in the achievement of their goals, albeit they had dyadic reporting relationships. Further, in ODI, there were more self-managed teams in manufacturing and in sales, which were constituted by peers from the same function. The third and fourth were time-bound cross-functional product development teams and project teams constituted a variety of inter-departmental projects. ODI willingly participated in the study to gain insights into the effectiveness of its teams. (Edmondson 1999, 350-383.)

 

The research was therefore broken down into three phases of data collection: interviews and observations with the first eight teams during the first two visits to ODI. The tool used in accessing the quantitative data was a questionnaire consisting of two and one standardized interview, agreed upon by specialists of the department where the sample teams were located. The interviewed and observed seven teams selected based on survey data again manifested behavior through both high and low-level learning behaviors. (Edmondson 1999, 350-383.)

 

The research underscores the importance of team psychological safety in facilitating collective learning processes. Both qualitative and quantitative data supported the notion of team psychological safety as a shared belief about the outcomes of taking interpersonal risks within a group. Qualitative findings revealed key beliefs about the interpersonal environment consistent with this concept, while survey items designed to measure team psychological safety demonstrated strong reliability. Moreover, the data indicated that team psychological safety extends beyond mere interpersonal trust, encompassing a cohesive interpersonal climate characterized by trust, respect for competence, and concern for team members as individuals. While trust-building is integral to fostering psychological safety, it may not directly lead to mutual respect and caring. However, trust can serve as a foundational element for cultivating the interpersonal beliefs essential to psychological safety within a team. (Edmondson 1999, 350-383.)

 

Strategies for Fostering Psychological Safety

 

“Practice fields”

 

Peter M. Senge introduced the concept of “practice fields” in 1990, highlighting their role as dedicated spaces for skill development and reflection without the pressure of immediate action. Senge observed that unlike sports teams, orchestras, or pilots who have rehearsal environments to hone their skills, managers often lack such spaces, forcing them to learn directly in high-stakes situations. This comparison is underscored by an analogy with pilots, who undergo extensive simulation training before flying, a practice not commonly available for managers or physicians facing real-life decisions. (Senge 1990, as cited in Edmondson, Kramer, & Cook 2004, 239-272.)

 

To address this gap, Senge suggests that managers can create their own “practice fields” by establishing safe, offline environments where they can experiment with different approaches and learn from mistakes without the fear of negative consequences. These environments may include trial runs, off-site meetings, and various simulation exercises. Such practice fields aim to foster a culture of psychological safety, encouraging learning and growth by mitigating the impact of errors. (Senge 1990, as cited in Edmondson, Kramer, & Cook 2004, 239-272.)

 

Practice settings help improve psychological safety, not only that they remove the immediate threat from financial or medical errors but they also let one learn that perfection from the start is not an expectation. By doing team tasks with no consequence for errors, these practice settings unearth potential problems for team members to surface without the fear of punishment. The implementation of practice fields is tightly knit with the behavior of leadership, which will usually suggest the power and impact to insinuate and form these learning facilities. This will communicate to all concerned that errors are part of learning and growth, and will inculcate an environment where members can experiment and learn. (Edmondson, Kramer, & Cook 2004, 239-272.)

 

Clarifying the Need for Voice

Emphasizing the work context means to note several factors, beyond the common occurrence of failure, that make tasks and environments distinctive. These include uncertainty, interdependence, and whether success is seen to matter. Each affects people’s perceptions of failure concerning how often it is thought likely to occur, what purposes it might serve, and what its consequences will likely be. Emphasizing uncertainty helps people stay curious and alert, which is important in picking up warning signs of shifts early—be it in consumer preferences, patient responses to medications, or new technologies. (Edmondson 2018.)

 

Focus on interdependence reminds all team members of their responsibility to know how one’s role relates to others. It encourages ongoing communication to find out how one’s work is impacting and being impacted upon by others pointing out that work done together demands good communication. Thus, where leaders frame their tasks, they are pointing out that engaging in decisive, collaborative work such as sharing ideas, and pointing out problems represents the fundamental interpersonal risk. (Edmondson 2018.)

 

Proactive Inquiry

 

Asking questions to invite participation is about delving deeper into subjects, issues, or people with genuine interest and empathy. This practice can be challenging, particularly for high achievers. Furthermore, leaders might resist asking questions out of fear it shows weakness or ignorance, a concern intensified in cultures that favor telling over asking. (Edmondson 2018.)

 

However, overcoming these barriers is essential for fostering psychological safety. Effective questioning relies on principles such as asking without presuming the answer, avoiding yes/no questions, and crafting queries that encourage comprehensive, thoughtful responses. The World Café organization underscores “powerful questions” that inspire, provoke, and foster new thinking, crucial for significant organizational or social advancements. These techniques highlight the importance of inquiry in creating a climate where psychological safety supports open dialogue and collaborative problem-solving. (World Café n.d., as cited in Edmondson 2018.)

 

ATTRIBUTES OF A POWERFUL QUESTION

  • Generates curiosity in the listener
  • Stimulates reflective conversation
  • Is thought-provoking
  • Surfaces underlying assumptions
  • Invites creativity and new possibilities
  • Generates energy and forward movement
  • Channels attention and focuses inquiry
  • Stays with participants
  • Touches a deep meaning
  • Evokes more questions

(World Café n.d., as cited in Edmondson 2018.)

 

CONCLUSION

 

In summary, the concept of psychological safety, as discussed in this essay, is fundamental to fostering an innovative and engaged workforce. Psychological safety allows for the expression and exploration of ideas without fear of negative repercussions, thus empowering individuals to take interpersonal risks and fully utilize their abilities. This construct is integral not only for individual fulfillment but also for the collective efficacy and learning of teams. The essay has explored how environments like “practice fields” enable individuals to practice skills and learn from errors in a safe context, further enhancing psychological safety and the overall learning culture within organizations.

To conclude, there is a clear imperative for leaders, team members, and organizations to prioritize psychological safety. By doing so, they can create a strong foundation for innovation, resilience, and adaptability within their teams. Leaders, in particular, must be proactive in asking powerful questions, cultivating an environment of mutual respect, and emphasizing the interconnectedness of team members. Organizations that champion psychological safety will not only thrive in today’s dynamic market but will also be well-positioned to navigate the complexities of tomorrow’s business landscape.

 

 

REFERENCES

Edmondson, A. C., Kramer, R. M., & Cook, K. S. 2004. Psychological safety, trust, and learning in organizations: A group-level lens. Trust and distrust in organizations: Dilemmas and approaches 12(2004), 239-272.

 

Edmondson, A. 1999. Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative science quarterly 44(2), 350-383.

 

Edmondson, A. C. 2018. The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. 1st edition. Wiley.

 

Kahn, W. A. 1990. Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of management journal 33(4), 692-724.

 

Ross, L. & Ward, A. 1996. Naive Realism: Implications for Social Conflict and Misunderstanding. In Values & Knowledge. Ed. T. Brown, E.S. Reed, & E. Turiel. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 103–35.

 

Schulte, M., Cohen, N. A., & Klein, K. J. 2012. The Coevolution of Network Ties and Perceptions of Team Psychological Safety. Organization Science 23(2), 564–581.

 

Senge, M. 1990. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.

 

Voigt, K. I., Buliga, O., Michl, K., Voigt, K. I., Buliga, O., & Michl, K. 2017. Entertainment on demand: The case of Netflix. Business model pioneers: How innovators successfully implement new business models, 127-141.

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