We talk a lot about psychological safety, but most of it is platitudes: “It’s good. Do more of it.”

If we really want to improve our environments then it’s not enough to say “do more”. We have to understand what’s really happening so that we can determine what to change in our environments to make it better.

Why is this important? Aside from just being decent people and wanting what’s best for those around us, there is a tangible cost to not having good psychological safety. A typical development team in North America costs about a million and a half dollars a year. If we’re making that team less effective by not creating a psychologically safe environment then we’re wasting considerable time and money.

Parts of our brains are not capable of operating at peak performance when we feel unsafe. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex; that part of our brain that does higher level, rational, thinking. If we want our people to be maximally effective, they need to feel safe.

Google’s own research (Project Aristotle) found that psychological safety was the single biggest factor for a highly effective team.

There is a catch-22 in discussing psychological safety in that people who don’t feel safe, also tend to not feel comfortable talking about psychological safety. We need to have a bit of safety to even be able to talk about the subject with any depth.

So how do we address it if we can’t talk about it without already having some?

Since I’m normally talking to an analytical crowd (IT people), I start with the science. I talk through the SAFETY model and introduce a bit of Polyvagal Theory. If I feel that the group is already highly anxious when talking about this then I might introduce some of the Anti-Anxiety Toolkit to give them techniques to calm themselves.

I find that while we’re discussing all of the science, people will begin to open up and feel a little bit safer. Just being able to put a name to a thing, makes it easier to deal with.1

Then based on the things we’re discussing, we can usually propose some experiments to try. Things that we hope will increase the level of safety. Once those have been put in place, we’re usually able to have even deeper conversations of what needs to be done.

There are no immediate fixes here. If you have issues of psychological safety, and so many companies do today, it will take time to unwind that and get to a better place. The benefits are real though, and it will pay for itself over and over.

I’d be happy to help your company with this. Ask me how.

  1. “Studies have shown that simply talking about our problems and sharing our negative emotions with someone we trust can be profoundly healing—reducing stress, strengthening our immune system, and reducing physical and emotional distress” Psychology Today