Seven Behaviours That Damage Psychological Safety
Psychological safety is created through shared values and positive behaviours, where a culture of trusting, helping, and elevating means that all members of the team can work productively and be their true selves, without fear.
Liu et al (2020) found a negative relationship between department leader incivility and group psychological safety. They showed that poor leadership – in their study “leader incivility” – damages the psychological safety, and therefore, performance of the team.
There are many things that you, as a leader or team member, can do to increase psychological safety on your team, but what are things that you must be careful to avoid doing? What are some key behaviours that damage psychological safety?
Here are seven common behaviours that damage psychological safety:
Bullying, intimidation, and ruling by fear.
This could be in the form of unwarranted public reprimands: the stereotypical angry boss storming into the office to shout at someone for a minor indiscretion. This sort of behaviour creates a great deal of fear in a team, especially when the rationale for the reprimand is ill-defined and expectations aren’t clear. Some managers believe that fear is a powerful motivator, but in fact it’s the opposite. Fear results in team members playing a constant second-guessing game of anticipating the mood of their boss, which, far from facilitating improved performance, simply results in team members being distracted and anxious.
A key part of psychological safety is being able to “give the boss bad news”. A team that is ruled by fear and intimidation will tend to hide bad news, and not disclose risks, which can result in disaster.
Breaking a promise.
Psychological safety is strongly related to trust. Trust in your team mates and trust in your leader is fundamental to being on a psychologically safe team. If you make a promise to someone on your team, you must try hard to follow through. This relates to the second most important factor in high-performing teams by Google’s Project Aristotle: “dependability“.
If you happen to break a promise, make sure that you apologise, explain why it happened, and discuss how you will try to not let it happen again.
Having the “wrong” person in the room.
Teams are highly cohesive units, and psychological safety is at its greatest when all members of the team have transitioned through the forming-storming-norming-performing phases of Tuckman’s model, and through the four stages (inclusion, learning, contributing, challenging) of psychological safety. When there is someone present who hasn’t moved through those stages with the team, it can reduce, albeit temporarily, the psychological safety of the team.
This is even more true of situations where that person represents a potential or perceived threat – as a result of a significant degree of seniority and the potential to affect the status, or even the career, of team members.
For example: having the CEO present in the room during an incident post-mortem is probably not going to facilitate a great deal of admitting mistakes or asking for help.
This is common in highly traditional, hierarchical organisations, and in smaller founder-run organisations alike.
These are leaders who enjoy overt demonstrations of their power and authority, such as large desks, corner offices, and executive travel. This might correlate too with behaviours such as having double standards – one rule for them, and one for everyone else. For example, they might be late to meetings, whilst vilifying others for doing the same. They may not reply to emails, or will reschedule meetings without notice. Much of this behaviour results, intentionally or otherwise, in implicitly stating that they possess a higher status than their team members.
Psychological safety fundamentally requires a shared set of values and behaviours – a set that must be owned and adhered to by all team members, including the leader. It’s also critical for leaders to model positive behaviours within the team, so that good behaviours turn into good habits, and good habits build performance.
Taking credit for success
In some organisational cultures, managers and leaders feel compelled to take credit for the success of their team in order to maintain or increase their status in the hierarchy. The converse is also true, that these same leaders avoid taking responsibility for failures, and instead may blame the team, or individual members for mistakes. A good leader takes less than their fair share of the credit, and more than their fair share of the blame.
To feel psychologically safe, team members need to know that their efforts matter. In Project Aristotle, this is the fifth factor – Impact. If team members don’t know if they’ll be given the credit for successes, and they may be blamed for mistakes, psychological safety and performance will suffer.
Micro-managing and over-checking
We know that quality is important, and the quicker we can catch defects and errors, the better – whether it’s components of a gearbox, or design elements of a marketing campaign. But micro-managing and constant checking for mistakes robs team members of their self-autonomy and freedom. Micro-managing implies to team members that they are not trusted, and trust is fundamental to psychological safety.
In the early twentieth century, Frederick Winslow Taylor create the concept of “scientific management”, which included measuring every aspect of work, from the size of someone’s shovel to how much coal they moved in a 15-minute period. Taylor regarded his teams as nothing more than oxen. Taylor’s approach dramatically changed the manufacturing landscape and remains pervasive, even insidious, now. Many managers, a century later, still reflect this approach, and insist that team members “clock in” and “clock out” when they start and finish work, or even take a toilet break.
This can quickly result in a phenomenon in teams known as presenteeism, where simply being on time and “doing your hours” takes priority over the quantity and quality of work. Managers with this Taylorist stance often try to combat presenteeism with even more measurement, such as measuring productivity, outputs, and quality. This heavy reliance on over-measurement results in disinterested, unmotivated team members who will work only to meet the targets set, and work no longer has any meaning – which is Project Aristotle’s fourth factor in team performance. Not only that, but huge amounts of effort and investment are required for this degree of unnecessary, even harmful, measurement.
The list goes on, and is very possibly infinite. What have you experienced, or done, that damaged psychological safety on your team?
To find out more about how to build psychological safety and improve the performance of your teams, download the psychological safety workshop and exercise toolkit.