When it comes to stress at work, there are two types of stress: “good” work-related stress that’s a natural part of the creative tension at play during work; and “bad” stress that comes from toxic management and a company culture that makes you feel unsafe. The second type could and should be avoided. It boils down to creating a culture that fosters psychological safety, so that people can actually focus on their work and stop wasting time worrying about the wrong things.
Psychological safety is defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career”. It is “a condition in which you feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo — all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalised or punished in some way” (Timothy R Clark, cited in Wikipedia). In short it is the shared belief that the team is safe to take the necessary risks to do its best work.
Teams that are psychologically safe are also more emotionally intelligent, more creative and more innovative. When they feel safe, people express more of their feelings, listen to others and feel listened to, and pay more attention to their emotions and those of others. They are more innovative because they feel free to suggest ideas and take risks without the fear of being embarrassed by the group.
That’s the subject of Daniel Coyle’s remarkable book The Culture Code, in which he explains that our brains are wired to crave all the “belonging cues” that the group can provide. These cues create an environment that feels safe. They must possess three qualities: 1. energy (in each exchange), 2. individualisation (each person is unique and valued), and 3. future orientation (with signals that the relationship will continue). Thus these cues tell our hyper-vigilant brains that they can stop worrying and shift into connection mode. Team cohesion depends on team members sending regular signals of safe connection.
How can you create a culture that fosters psychological safety? Daniel Coyle as well as Liz Fosslien and Molly West Duffy, the authors of No Hard Feelings, suggest it’s ultimately about the “little things”: “emotional culture cascades from you: why small actions make a big difference” (No Hard Feelings).
Here are 9 things you can do to improve psychological safety for your team: