Why Psychological Safety Fosters Individual and Team Performance

March 25, 2024tug of war

Why effective leaders make creating psychological safety and building trust a strategic priority

In this article we explain that neuroscience has shown how and why fear can hinder attempts to improve performance, increase innovation and productivity in any organisation.

We also share ideas and tips for leaders in how to build a trusting, energised, engaged and innovative team:

What are the consequences of a lack of psychological safety in an organisation?

A lack of psychological safety in an organisation will hinder people’s performance and development in multiple ways.

It will undermine individual ownership, proactivity and a culture of learning and continuous improvement. Where psychological safety is lacking it is replaced by social anxiety which prevents people feeling safe in thinking for themselves and implementing their ideas from fear of consequences and even ridicule if something doesn’t go according to plan.

People will be less likely to share their ideas with peers and colleagues in senior positions. In this context, energy levels and enthusiasm for the work at hand will be low. This lack of vitality will therefore have an impact on creativity, brainstorming ideas and solutions, and people’s sense of ownership for situations which arise.

The neuroscience supporting the value of Psychological Safety

The brain system involved in assessing Psychological Safety is known as the ‘Triadic Brain’, which includes three main components; the Amygdala, central to our defence mechanisms like fight, flight, or freeze, and used to detect threat; the Ventral Striatum central to signalling reward; and the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex which balances the other two by evaluating the interplay between threat and reward in different circumstances.

The regulatory function of the vmPFC is crucial for figuring out our reactions to various events or scenarios, potentially encouraging us to venture into new experiences despite perceived risks. If the activation of the Amygdala is reduced, its role in this wee triad is subdued, meaning that people are much more likely to seek solutions, contribute ideas and collaborate safely as they will be more engaged with the reward and excitement of doing so (Ventral Striatum activation central to our natural Dopamine Reward System) than hindered by fear of the consequences.

Ultimately, if leaders foster Psychological Safety and target building trust, they create a stage on which their people can perform to their potential.

What steps can leaders take to build trust and establish Psychological Safety?

Establish Clear Expectations and Connections

Leaders must communicate what they expect from their teams, including how to handle uncertainties, approach experimentation, handle mishaps (as well as highlighting the likelihood of them occurring!), and how to work collaboratively. This clarity empowers team members to make confident decisions, fostering a safer, less threatening environment. By setting clear expectations, team members can be more confident in the day-to-day decisions that are taken about what to do and how to do it.

Additionally, by consistently highlighting the purpose of the work, leaders can help people to make the link between their efforts and the organisation or department’s goals, boosting both motivation and a sense of belonging.

Encourage Open Dialogue

To promote collaboration, leaders should value each team member's input and ensure that people feel heard. By also showing humility and admitting when they don't have all the answers, leaders also pave the way for others to contribute their knowledge, and significantly, demonstrate that their opinion will be valued and respected. This encouragement and important validation are achieved by asking insightful questions and actively listening, which indicates a genuine interest in their team’s thoughts and helps to strengthen team dynamics

Spaces for Sharing

Leaders need to create environments, both physical and virtual, where information can flow freely—whether in-office or remotely. This demonstrates the importance of sharing knowledge and encourages proactive problem-solving among colleagues. The goal is to make it normal and rewarding for team members to seek help and share knowledge amongst peers and fellow team members, thus also fostering a willingness to collaborate as well as accept feedback.

Positive Reinforcement

It is important for leaders to appreciate the value in acknowledging and highlighting good work, as well as allowing time to thank their team for their efforts. This becomes especially important when things go wrong.

When mistakes happen, and they will, responding positively is crucial. Leaders should appreciate the effort and address mishaps in a constructive manner, signifying that it's acceptable to make mistakes, as their existence forms a path to learning, growth and better performance. This helps to remove the stigma around, what we often term as ‘failure’ and takes the lid of the creation of innovative, bold solutions when they are needed.

As mentioned, an overriding fear of failure will lead to the dominance of the brain’s Amygdala-driven threat response in people’s perspective (which in a work environment could manifest itself as inertia, lack of engagement, no creativity and minimal ownership) and stifle the reward-focused ‘ventral striatum’ central to our motivation to problem solve, be creative and drive for improvement.

Fundamentally, creating a safe environment for mistakes to occur, also encourages transparency…. Better to hear quickly that there is a problem than for the team to suppress this information for fear of their leader’s reaction!

Champion Fairness and Team Culture

It's also essential to maintain high standards of teamwork, ensuring fairness and a shared commitment to excellence. We have a mechanism in our brain that makes us sensitive to the unfairness of collaborating with people who are not pulling their weight or who are undermining the ability of the team to progress. It is therefore the responsibility of the leader to ensure that such eventualities are noticed and appropriately managed. This will help to facilitate all team members freely applying their best efforts.

In Summary

Science’s understanding of how our brain functions and how to unlock the performance and behaviours that lead to success, pave the way to leverage its extraordinary power and provide leaders with clear neuroscience-based tactics to create high performing teams and support the delivery of business outcomes.

The insights on creating Psychological Safety outlined above are just one example of how these insights can help leaders to create environments in which people thrive and perform at their best.

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