As a leader, or a member of a team, you’re probably pretty good at creating a psychologically safe environment where performance is high and people can flourish. Providing clarity of expectations, goals, team behaviours, and exhibiting generative leadership practices may be hard work, but it’s achievable.
Building psychological safety in a team is one thing, but how do you scale out psychological safety across an entire organisation? In this article, we highlight some of the successful strategies that we’ve used to transform an organisation from one with pockets of psychologically safe, high performance teams, to one where psychological safety is the default standard throughout, including every person, every team, and extending all the way to the executive board. This is what Dr Amy Edmondson defined as a “learning organisation“: it’s hard work, and it will take time, but again, you can get there.
These are four high-level strategies that describe essential approaches to long-term change. This article doesn’t describe the details of the individual methods, behaviours, measurement of success, workshops, feedback and other actions and practices involved; for detailed hands-on guidance, refer to the psychological safety action pack.
Which practice you focus on will be determined by many factors, including your sphere of influence, your degree of authority, the size and shape of the organisation, the types of teams and structures, and the existing appetite for change. Identify which of the practices below best suit your situation – maybe you’re able to adopt a single one, or maybe you can utilise more than one approach at the same time: or maybe you’ll adopt one, then move to another. If you want help with any of these approaches, we can help! I’m also really interested to find out how you got on with these approaches, or maybe you were successful with a different strategy?
Your aim in this case is to build a great example of what can be achieved, and influence other leaders across the organisation to do the same. Begin by identifying one team, or group of teams, that you’re able to influence. Maybe you’re in a leadership role, or a member of those teams. Work on the team practices, measurement approaches, values and behaviours that build psychological safety and establish a high performing, psychologically safe team – you can use the psychological safety action pack to do this. Evangelise to the rest of the organisation, showcasing the approaches you’ve taken and the results you’ve achieved. Ensure that you have the members of this team on board and be explicit and transparent about what you’re trying to do, and recognise that members of the team may feel somewhat under a magnifying glass. Strong leadership will be required to support the team under this scenario.
Attract other leaders across the organisation by publicly sharing your story, and support them to adopt similar approaches. Given time, more and more leaders and teams across the organisation will be creating psychologically safe, generative, high performing teams.
Your aim with this approach is to create a broad community, spanning multiple teams, functions or geographies of the organisation, who share a common enthusiasm and understanding of psychological safety. Whilst it’s useful to have representatives from leadership within this community, it’s more important that the members are diverse, enthusiastic, engaged, and motivated, so make it a welcoming, inclusive space where everyone feels they can contribute and get value from being a member. This community should co-create a manifesto or team charter in order to build cohesion and agree on ways of working and communicating.
Take a look at the Communities of Practice playbook shared in episode 41 of the psychological safety newsletter for an incredibly comprehensive guide to establishing a community such as this in your organisation. This community exists in order to evangelise and share best practices, showcase the benefits of psychologically safe environments, and provide a feedback mechanism for learning by doing. Members are able to carry out experiments and practices in their own teams and bring those findings back to the community so that the learning can be shared across the organisation.
Inspired by Gene Kim’s “The Unicorn Project”, the Rebel Alliance is similar to the Shining Exemplar approach, but may be more appropriate when in an organisation that has previously rejected a psychologically safe, generative or progressive transformation. In this case, as a member or leader of a team (or collection of teams), you may know that building a psychologically safe environment where people can excel, is the right thing to do, but explicit or implicit instructions for a different approach (such as command-control) are in place. This is the most risky approach, and likely to be hard work and stressful for leaders who push ahead with it, but if you’re not averse to risk, ready for a challenge, and keen to do the right thing despite potential personal cost, this could be for you.
Again, it’s important to set the scene for those teams and people involved. Ensure that everyone understands what your ambitions are, and that everyone is on board with any new approaches you take. Even though these practices might not be espoused by your organisation, you may decide to adopt regular retrospectives, define team charters, and change work practices and tools in order to build a high performance, psychologically safe unit. As a leader, you may need to manage the psychological safety gradient where your unit boundaries the rest of the organisation: maintaining that steep gradient of high versus low safety will be challenging, and this is where much of the burden will be shouldered.
When you have generated some success, and maybe you’ve also measured psychological safety in your team over time, you have the evidence to show that you did the right thing. After all, as Grace Hopper said, “it is easier to beg forgiveness, than get permission.” And this is exactly the sort of situation Grace had in mind – where it’s important to “Do the right thing within the organization, whether or not they know it. That way you can help the people that you work for.” Now comes the hard part though – using that evidence to persuade other parts of the organisation to adopt these practices and move forward. You may choose to create a Community of Excellence as above, or you might go for the bold option, and shoot for a full transformation programme, as below:
This might be the most heavyweight approach, but it’s also the approach most likely to succeed at truly transforming an entire organisation, if done well and carried out with the full buy-in and support of senior leadership. And this buy-in is also your biggest challenge.
To achieve buy-in from an executive team or board, we need to speak their language, understand their motivations, and address their fears. The key point here is to understand what the organisation’s goals and mission consist of. Some organisations are driven by rapid innovation: getting new products and services to market before competitors do. Some are driven by quality of service: ensuring that reliability, quality, and performance are of the highest standard, so that customers receive the best service possible. Others may be driven primarily by compliance with regulations, cost-efficiency, or positive impact on society. Ensure that you understand this mission before obtaining buy-in.
When you understand and can articulate the mission of your organisation, you need to understand how to present psychological safety to the leadership team in a way that shows that building it in the organisation will help achieve the mission’s goals. Maybe psychological safety will help identify risks and threats to non-compliance, or maybe it will help generate new ideas and get them to market, or maybe it will help identify efficiency and quality improvements. This is the language you need to speak, and we can help with that through our Senior Leadership Ignite Sessions.
Once you have buy-in and enthusiasm from the senior leadership team, it’s time to assemble the transformation team members. Similar to the Community of Excellence, this requires representatives fro al areas of the organisation, who possess enthusiasm for the change (again, potentially some work to do there), the capability and understanding to deliver, and the authority to make decisions and implement change. From here, the feedback loop-based approach as described in the Psychological Safety Action Pack will enable you to easily develop an organisation-wide programme of actionable change, based upon the process of Study – Measure – Build – Maintain – Reflect.
Sorry, but your work is never done! In part, because organisation changes, people leaving and joining teams, and changing priorities and needs, mean that an organisation is constantly in flux: tomorrow’s organisation is not the same as today’s. In significant part however, because psychological safety doesn’t just take effort to create, it takes great effort to maintain, so your transformation programme should become part of your organisation itself.
Get in touch if you want to find out more, if you would like help transforming your organisation, or if you have any suggestions to improve this guidance!