Psychological Safety and Group Dynamics

Regenerative leadership involves revitalizing the living systems we are part of to create optimal conditions for unleashing the energies of leaders and employees, enabling them to act.

To encourage organizations and their members to act in new ways, it is necessary for them to actually do something different from what they usually do. One of the things that can prevent them from doing so is their fear, whether conscious or unconscious, of making mistakes or deviating from the norm. This is where the concept of psychological safety comes into play. If there isn’t enough psychological safety for people to speak up or take action, they’ll refrain from doing so.

Psychological safety is a crucial factor in determining the effectiveness of teamwork and, consequently, whether work produces results

According to American leadership professor Amy Edmondson (2020), psychological safety is defined as “team members’ shared belief that it is safe to take interpersonal risks in the team.” Taking risks might include fear of appearing ignorant, weak, annoying, or incompetent in the eyes of the group. What’s interesting about the concept of psychological safety is that it doesn’t describe an individual state (which is typically referred to as trust) but rather a group state (the interpersonal). In other words, within a group of people, such as a department, a team, or an entire organization, there is a sense that there is safety within the group as a whole.

She describes psychological safety more concretely as an environment (within a group) where people feel safe to express themselves and be themselves.

They can be identified by:

  • Sharing when they make mistakes.
  • Asking for help.
  • Expressing dissatisfaction or suggesting improvements.
  • Asking questions and sharing new ideas.
  • Giving space and accommodating each other in the above situations.

Psychological safety is thus not about being nice or having a good time, but rather about being able to speak one’s mind without reservation. However, psychological safety doesn’t just happen on its own in groups. On the contrary, as humans, we are initially inclined to avoid the potential risk of expressing our opinions. This means that it is crucial for us to consciously work on creating psychological safety.

To initiate a movement towards creating psychological safety, it is essential for leaders or group/team leaders to lead by example by demonstrating vulnerability and by inviting others to do the same.

Here are some concrete ways in which you can work on establishing and maintaining psychological safety:

  • Be a role model: Group leaders have a significant influence on the group’s culture. Be a role model by demonstrating openness, honesty, and respectful communication. Show that you are willing to listen to others’ ideas and accept feedback.
  • Set clear expectations: Make it clear to your team that you expect them to actively participate in promoting psychological safety. Clearly define what it entails and why it is important.
  • Encourage idea sharing: Create space and opportunities to encourage employees to share their ideas and perspectives. Use meetings, brainstorming sessions, or digital platforms to promote discussion and creative thinking.
  • Set the stage: Frame, for example, in articulating/reframing mistakes, where you don’t focus as much on the negative aspects of making the mistake, but rather on everything learned from making it. Align expectations for mistakes and uncertainty.
  • Invite participation and use yourself: Share your own mistakes and what you learned from them. Make sure to hold brief meetings where you don’t just share results but focus on the impact of what you did.
  • React constructively: Express appreciation and listen when someone shares a mistake. Destigmatize mistakes by discussing the natural aspect of failing when trying something new.

In a psychologically safe group, members feel they can be themselves, contribute their input, and be open about their uncertainties and shortcomings

Psychologically safe groups promote a culture of respectful communication, where members actively listen to each other and value each other’s perspectives, no matter how different they may be. This has documented positive effects on the work environment, innovation ability, problem-solving, and collaboration.

At the same time, there are several aspects to be aware of when working with and in groups. Firstly, group dynamics are central to keep an eye on, and as a continuation of that, groups have two mental states that they alternate between. Finally, there is also the possibility that groups, through their own dynamics, can make us dumber rather than more innovative and smarter. I will elaborate on these three themes in each of the following three articles.