Building a cohesive and inclusive team requires nurturing safety, communication, and alignment. Below are some actionable ways for leaders to create and maintain safety.

Amy Edmonson, seen by many as the authority on safety and its place in the workplace, defines team psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Sounds simple enough, right? Unfortunately, that’s far from the case.

Simon Sinek also gave a great TED talk about why good leaders make you feel safe, and it’s worth the 12-minute listen. For some of you working away in a cubicle, it might seem a bit far fetched — we’re not all soldiers risking our lives for each other on the battlefield — but the principles apply whether you’re saving the world or making widgets. In order to make a team feel safe with you, they have to believe that whatever they’re doing for you, you’d also do for them. Trust. They also have to be able to work together without fear of reprisal or punishment. Cooperation

Obvious? Maybe. But I can tell you from personal experience it’s harder than you think. When I started my career, my first job out of college was as an analyst at Lehman Brothers. Well before the crash of 2008, Lehman Brothers was a respected investment bank I’m sure many outsiders saw as high-functioning and wildly successful. 

But inside, it was a truly scary place. In an environment that was consumed with fear and money, no one could admit any mistakes and spent far too much time covering them up. During my time there, I had a conversation with a man who had started working there after seven years in the Marines, but felt like he was less safe behind his desk than on the front lines. Whoa. right?

Compare that to BlackRock, one of the most successful asset management companies in the world, which was created by its founders after years of working for scary banks and hedge funds where no one felt safe. They believed if they could share information and support each other, they would outperform.

Too many of us know exactly what a psychologically unsafe workplace looks like. But what about one that is? And how do we create it? At Lead Belay, we have a few litmus tests we advise people to use when trying to determine if they are working in, and creating, a safe place for their teams.  

#1 Are you surprised if someone quits?

If you’ve created a psychologically safe workplace, the answer should always be “No". We’ve talked about this before, if someone on your team leaves and you didn’t know about it, it’s either because you didn’t create the environment where they could tell you about their goals and aspirations beyond your team, or they were so exasperated with their current environment and didn’t feel like they could talk to you about it. Either way, unsafe.

We know it feels risky to have these conversations. No one wants to hear that a valued team member is thinking about leaving, even if it’s months or years down the road. But avoiding the conversation and hoping they never have thoughts of leaving is wishful thinking. People are always thinking of what’s next, and the truth is that if you create the environment where they can talk about it openly and are put on the path to achieve their goals, they are far more likely to stay than go. 

Even if they do go, it’s on good terms. When it’s not a surprise, you can plan for it and are far better off. You’re also likely a talent magnet, and finding someone to take their place shouldn't be difficult. In the meantime, your team will function better, with more support and cooperation and less competition and anxiety. 

#2 Is your team admitting their mistakes?

For this one, the answer should be 'Yes". Taking the example of my time at Lehman Brothers, the former Marine I spoke with told me how in the military you’re encouraged to admit your mistakes, often as quickly as possible, so they can be corrected. Sometimes, there has to be a correct time and a place for practicing this. Firefighters have a great framework for allowing for this safely: not during fighting a fire, but after fighting it. Crisis and control mode may not be the time to admit mistakes. But when the fire is out and the crisis is over, are your team members reflecting with you about what went wrong and how they could do better next time? If they feel psychologically safe, they are.

#3 Do you get clarifying questions?

Much like #2, if your team feels psychologically safe, they’ll ask you questions. If someone does a bunch of work that misses the mark, where they clearly understood the assignment or what was being asked of them, the first question you ask shouldn’t be why they messed up. It should be why they didn’t come to you before starting work to make sure they knew what was expected. It’s possible it was just a miscommunication, but it could also mean they felt unsafe. 

#4 As a team, are you questioning the status quo?

If you and your team are just “doing what you’re told,” you might not have a psychologically safe environment. If team members notice mistakes, or find ways to be more efficient or do their work better, they should feel comfortable speaking up. They should feel empowered to make changes, and to do things differently. Team members who challenge the way things have “always been done,” are a reliable indication that your team feels safe.

If it seems like you’re failing any of these litmus tests? Congratulations on figuring it out! Now it’s time to do something about it. 

Where to start creating a safe environment

So, where can you start creating a psychologically safe environment for your team? Talk to them about it. Start having one-on-one conversations (even if they are difficult), regularly, where you ask them about their growth and development. They should be the ones talking the majority of the time in these meetings, with you offering support, advice, or your experiences where you can, occasionally. 

Start doing this with individuals, and progress to also having these conversations as a team. Set aside time in group meetings for people to share what they’re proud of, what they’re bringing to the team, what their goals are, and where they want to go. It may seem like a high bar to set, but once you invite it, you’ll see less competition and more support between your team members.

As a leader, of course you have to do more than talk. You also have to act. In these conversations, when a team member tells you their goals or what they’re hoping to accomplish, now’s your chance to help them. Give them stretch assignments, suggest conferences or networking events, or even — and this may sound crazy — make an introduction to someone else that can help them get where they want to go. They may leave, or they may recognize they would rather not take a chance on another environment when they feel so safe working with you. 


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