We know psychological safety is essential for high performance teams: it enables sharing of ideas, admitting and learning from mistakes, highlighting risks, and challenging (and improving) the way we do things. Psychological safety is the primary foundation for team performance as well as organisational agility and change.
Innovation is so critical for creating products that delight customers and serve critical business needs, and psychological safety is a fundamental enabler of innovation. There are many other great benefits from building psychological safety in organisations.
Before you measure psychological safety:
Have conversations with people in your organisation and teams. Ask how people feel about the level of psychological safety in their teams and in the broader organisation. Attempt to find out how much people understand of the term psychological safety – or if they’ve heard of it at all. These conversations will help you craft the survey language better, and help you decide on the best approach to take.
Most importantly though, before measuring psychological safety, make sure you have the resources, people, authority and capacity to act and do something about the findings that will come from the results. If you carry out the survey, but it takes 6 months or more for anyone to see anything being done about it, people will lose confidence in the approach, and you may even harm psychological safety as a result.
Measuring psychological safety is powerful, but it’s also dangerous.
If you’re embarking on an improvement journey, measurement can be a powerful exercise, but it also has its dangers. We must be conscious of sampling bias (where only people who feel safe to complete the survey do so, skewing the results), and of “Campbell’s Law“, by which if decisions are made as a result of the survey, it may incentivise people to alter the ratings accordingly – again, skewing the results. Even measuring itself, particularly if no action is taken as a result, can harm psychological safety. Don’t do this lightly, and ensure that change is catalysed as a result. Imagine how team members would feel if asked to complete this survey, which requires them to be vulnerable, and then perceive that the information is discarded afterwards, no attention is paid to the results, and no changes are made as a result.
It’s essential to only do this as part of a broader programme of psychological safety practice improvement and as part of an open dialogue with your people. This practice also only really works for long-lived teams that have had the opportunity to build habits and practices – it won’t make as much sense for short-lived or brand new teams who don’t yet have embedded practices and behaviours. For short lived teams, use the “team performance exercise” instead (which is also a great practice for long-lived teams too!).
Four powerful impacts
By surveying agreement with these statements, you’re actually doing four powerful things –
- Surfacing any issues that are impacting psychological safety,
- Educating people about what psychological safety is,
- Making psychological safety safe to talk about, and
- Most importantly of all, making explicit and encouraging the very behaviours that increase psychological safety!
(This is the rationale for modifying them from Dr Edmondson’s original 7 statements.)
Below are ten questions that you can ask yourself or your teams to determine the level of psychological safety in your team. Be aware of cultural and language differences that may impact the survey significance. Change any questions that might not make sense to your team, and modify language as necessary. We’re not trying to repeat this across different organisations (so we don’t need to worry about replicability in different contexts) – we’re trying to have the greatest relevance and impact for our own context.
When carrying this exercise out with your team, (ideally) perform the survey anonymously – if it’s possible that your team are psychologically unsafe, they will be more likely to be honest if the survey is anonymous. If the team are very psychologically safe, then it won’t matter if the survey is anonymous or not.
Note: this is a great exercise for a long-lived team – don’t carry out this exercise with a short-lived team (such as a temporary project team). Instead, use the psychological safety matrix workshop to more qualitatively address and create psychological safety.
Simple but powerful dialogue
Personally, I believe that conversations and dialogue are more powerful than metrics, so you may decide to use these statements not as a survey, but primarily as a talking point, and have some really valuable discussions with your team about them. If you’re familiar with the Action Research approach, this is a good example.
Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.
William Bruce Cameron
Where possible, add a “comment” option for each question so people can provide some extra detail if they wish to. It’s important to obtain qualitative feedback for each statement as it will facilitate and clarify some of the actions that you may need to take in order to build psychological safety in the team.
Ask your team to score agreement with the statements below (using a 1-5 or similar scale, 1 being low and 5 being high: this is called a “likert” scale).
- On this team, I understand what is expected of me.
- We value outcomes more than outputs or inputs, and nobody needs to “look busy”.
- If I make a mistake on this team, it is never held against me.
- When something goes wrong, we work as a team to find the systemic cause.
- All members of this team feel able to bring up problems and tough issues.
- Members of this team never reject others for being different and nobody is left out.
- It is safe for me to take a risk on this team.
- It is easy for me to ask other members of this team for help.
- Nobody on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.
This survey, adapted from Dr Amy Edmondson’s “The Fearless Organisation”, and many other tools, are included in the psychological safety action pack which you can download now and use with your teams. Again, you should consider whether all these statements are appropriate for your team(s), and whether any changes should be made, especially if English is not a native language of your team members.
These statements are from Dr Edmondson’s original research. The key point is to ensure that you use the language, statements, and practices that have most meaning for your teams and context.
Repeat the survey after a period of time (the timescale is up to you) to evaluate any change in the different areas psychological safety and to demonstrate to your team that you’re committed to continuous improvement.
A score of 50 per team member would represent the most psychologically safe team in the world. This is somewhat unlikely. In reality, a score of 50 may highlight an issue where people feel unable to answer truthfully, so investigate further if that is the case.
The lower the aggregate score for the team, the lower the general psychological safety. However, the power of this survey is really in the detail.
Identify the statements with the lowest scores and the widest range of responses. These are your areas that require action, and are where you can make the largest difference whether you’re in charge of the team or not. It may be, for example, that there are new team members who don’t feel as safe as the team members with a longer tenure.
Read the rationale for each statement below and consider what actions you can take or behaviours you can encourage to raise the scores.
See an example here in Google Forms: https://forms.gle/cpYafs4224nkqiaB7 – and feel free to make a copy.
What do I do now?
After you’ve used the survey, you must take some actions to address any issues that have arisen. If you ignore the results, you could inadvertently damage psychological safety and make it more difficult to address in the future. Where your teams score low for any of the questions, take a look below and see what actions you could take as a result.
1 – On this team, I understand what is expected of me.
It is essential that team members understand what is expected of them in terms of delivery (speed, quality, cost, and other factors) and behaviour (everything from dress code and punctuality to coding standards) to foster psychological safety. Ensure tasks are clear and well defined, behaviour expectations are explicit, and negative behaviours are dealt with.
2 – We value outcomes more than outputs or inputs, and nobody needs to “look busy”.
Outcomes (such as revenue generated or satisfied customers) matter more than outputs (emails sent, lines of code written, or meetings attended). If the team focus on what truly matters to the business, they are safe to make decisions that can improve outcomes, even if those decisions reduce output. The ideal is a team that possesses enough psychological safety to decide not to do something that could make them look good in the eyes of others, but doesn’t deliver outcomes for the business.
3 – If I make a mistake on this team, it is never held against me.
A psychologically safe team will never blame a member of the team for a genuine mistake if their intentions were good. Indeed, by enabling mistakes to be made without a fear of blame, you enable innovation and risk taking that can drive your organisation ahead of the competition. Utilise systems thinking and DevOps approaches to prevent mistakes before they happen or mitigate the impact of mistakes when they do.
4 – When something goes wrong, we work as a team to find the systemic cause.
Related to the previous point but important enough to warrant its own question, a system of discovering the root causes of mistakes and failures means that not only do team members feel able to take risks without being blamed, but every single “failure” is an opportunity for learning and improvement. By building psychological safety through these retrospective exercises, everyone on the team gets to learn from mistakes, meaning mistakes are a gift, not a threat.
5 – All members of this team feel able to bring up problems and tough issues.
In a psychologically safe team, all members of the team are able to bring up problems and tough issues, ranging from personal struggles to concerns about other (even senior) members of the team. This psychological safety is crucial for allowing both vulnerability to show when you’re struggling and need help, and courage to raise difficult topics.
6 – Members of this team never reject others for being different and nobody is left out.
Evidence shows that diversity in a team results in higher quality products and happier team members, but diversity in itself is not enough: it is crucial that team members are all included in decision making and delivering results. To facilitate psychological safety (and high performance) every member of the team needs to be invested in the decisions made and the outcomes generated. This is particularly crucial for remote and distributed teams, where it is more difficult to see if a team member is becoming disengaged.
7 – It is safe for me to take a risk on this team.
Mistakes happen unintentionally, but risks are about taking actions that might not work, or may have unintended consequences. Psychological safety provides the framework for positive risk-taking, enabling innovation and ultimately, competitive advantage.
8 – It is easy for me to ask other members of this team for help.
In psychologically unsafe teams, team members try to hide their perceived weaknesses or vulnerabilities, which prevents them from asking for help. In a psychologically safe team, members prioritise the team goals over individual goals. Helping others helps achieve the team goal, and because team members feel safe to ask for that help, psychologically safe teams achieve more of their goals than unsafe teams.
9 – Nobody on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
In an unsafe team, members compete with each other to achieve their individual goals, and may even undermine other team members if it could benefit them or it is perceived that doing so may elevate their “rank” within the team or organisation. In a psychologically safe team, that counter-productive competition doesn’t exist, and the success of the team is more important looking good in the eyes of others.
10 – Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.
We all bring our own unique experience, skills and knowledge to the teams that we’re in, but we also bring our own prejudices and biases. In a psychologically safe team where members are valued for being their true selves, biases are less likely to manifest. Indeed, team members may feel safe enough to identify, raise, and discuss their own biases or those of other team members. By doing so, we provide space for each individual to maximise their potential from utilising their own unique skills and talents.
Regularly Measuring Psychological Safety
Be sure to regularly survey your teams’ agreement with these responses to determine if your strategy is working and to identify trends and early warning signs of problems in the team. By regularly measuring the degree of psychological safety on your team, you can begin to build your own unique strategy for developing and maintaining it. For instance, this may involve running more regular retrospectives or by workshopping the team’s values and behaviours.
Measurement is only a small part of the process. Download a complete Psychological Safety Action Pack full of workshops, tools, resources, and posters to help you measure, build, and maintain Psychological Safety in your teams.
Remember to be patient: this is a journey, not a destination, and work on your own psychological safety too. You can’t effectively help others if you don’t look after yourself.
When you’ve completed the survey, you can work on creating and maintaining psychological safety in your workplace with these ten key behaviours and actions.
Or, if you’re ready to take the plunge, download the entire psychological safety action pack to measure, build, maintain and improve psychological safety in your teams and organisation.