Psychological Safety + Boards
A couple of weeks ago, I recorded a podcast with Lisa Cook, founder of Get on Boards Australia about psychological safety. We first started our discussions about two years ago just prior to me commencing the People + Science Boardroom Psychological Safety Benchmark Research. So it is great to finally bring this project together with Lisa who was an early cheerleader for this project.
If you would like to hear the podcast please go here: Psychological Safety In The Boardroom With Carolyn Grant | Ep. 40 by Get on Board Australia (soundcloud.com)
What is psychological safety?
Answer: I find the easiest way to answer is to break psychological safety down into different phases. Firstly, it is the feeling that you are part of a team, that you belong. Secondly, it is the sense of comfort you feel in asking for help or asking questions. Thirdly, it is the safety you feel in contributing and participating. Fourthly, it is the safety you feel in initiating problem-solving or challenging the status quo.
You can only truly feel safe when you do not fear punishment, embarrassment, or some form of punishment. When you have teams with high degrees of psychological safety, you have a team that is highly engaged, collaborative, innovative and accountable.
How is psychological safety created?
Answer: You need high levels of trust, high levels of respect and high levels of safety to participate in a social setting. The phases are a really great way to visualise how you create psychological safety you cannot move into the next phase without first completing the one prior. For each stage there are some tasks and actions we can do to build trust, exhibit respect and drive safety for others.
Too much permission and not enough trust and respect leads to issues such work being stolen or taking the credit for others’ work. Too much respect and low levels of permission leads to micromanagement.
How is psychological safety maintained?
Answer: Leadership commitment to action, vigilant monitoring and evaluation, upskilling in leadership competencies such as conversational, social and emotional intelligence.
Direct leaders have the largest impact on psychological safety – up to 70%, so being aware of the cognitive differences in their team is critical and reducing emotional contagion.
I love the use of the word maintained – it implies that we need to continually work on psychological safety.Which is correct.
From our research and therefore our where we focus a lot of our training is understanding the neuroscience of conversations so that we can improve at every level of the organisation how to drive safe conversations. We believe that conversations are where we need to focus to drive better relationships and therefore improved culture.
How is psychological safety measured? Is it in the eye of the beholder?
Answer: Psychological safety is in the eye of the beholder, it is an assessment of your feelings of safety. But I think we have all been in environments where we have observed others feeling psychologically unsafe.
There are a couple of measurement tools but our People + Science Benchmark assesses levels of trust, respect, the phases of psychological safety, the cognitive dynamics of the team and the interventions required to meet the team dynamics. Therefore our tool seeks to evaluate where the greatest impact is – so if organisations have limited budget our assessment tools allow us to identify where the greatest impact will be and how to address it.
Does everyone have a different threshold or perception level of psychological safety?
Answer: Yes, every person and every brain are different. So, our history, perceptions, experiences are different. Therefore, we are asking ourselves if the environment is safe enough for “me” to be vulnerable within the group. Oftentimes we fail in creating a safe place for conversations that allow us to create that shared reality to share those experiences and perceptions and definitions so that we are “on the same song sheet”.
How do you have the type of robust/fierce conversations necessary in the boardroom whilst maintaining psychological safety? How do you effectively balance these two factors without falling into the trap of groupthink and fake harmony just for the sake of not upsetting others?
Answer: We need to take our teams through the stages of psychological safety. We can’t skip to the fierce and robust conversations without first establishing respect and trust and framing accountability. So, we need to do the hard yards first.
Importantly, psychological safety needs accountability so it is not “being nice for the sake of it”. When there are high levels of psychological safety and people have high levels of conversational intelligence we seek feedback, alternative thoughts and perceptions are open to expert advice when we reach this level we actually are reducing our exposure to bias – group think being one.
When we have high levels of conversational intelligence, we don’t fall into the trap of thinking we only have two choices – stay silent to maintain a relationship or speak up and ruin a relationship. When we improve our conversations, we actually make a decision and have the skills to speak up and maintain respect for others.
Do boardrooms need to come with a warning label?!?
Answer: Well according to the People + Science Boardroom Psychological Safety Benchmark 2020-2021 (Aust) report – yes, there is certainly some warnings in those figures.
- Only 4/10 people feel safe on boards.
- Only 3/10 feel that they can speak up
- Only 3/10 feel that they have high levels of trust with fellow board/executive leadership team members
- Respondents assessed that only 25% of their strategic decisions were highly effective.
- Only 13% if we looked at people and culture decisions.
- Only 13% knew of their WHS obligations in relation to psycho-social hazards.
Then if we look at it from an organisational perspective – only 36% trust the decisions coming from the boardroom from both board members and executive leadership teams. That is clearly something that needs to be measured, monitored, and addressed. So, if I was coming onto a board, leadership executive role, a potential shareholder/investor or about to merge or acquire – I would start with the one figure that tells you what your future risk is and what your potential is – psychological safety. The word due diligence is a misnomer if there is not an assessment of psychological safety.
It goes even further than that. Organisations need to come with a warning label. The amount of risk to board members and leadership teams because of psycho-social hazards is huge. The cost of psychologically unsafe workplaces is huge (just think of the complaints, lost productivity, churn rates of employees, knowledge lost, reputational damage, mental health). So, when seeking a leadership position, a board position, considering a merger or acquisition, looking to provide insurance coverage – I would be looking for an external evaluation of psychological safety so you are aware of the future exposures as a result of psychological safety. So, disclosure of a psychological safety assessment should be a part of board due diligence.
What can we individually as board members do to create a psychologically safe environment AND maintain sufficient and effective discussion and debate?
Answer: Understand and familiarise yourself with the Psychological Safety of your organisation and ensure it is on the board’s performance dashboard – this is a lead indicator to your future exposure to risk and where the margin is currently being left on the table. Upskill in conversational intelligence. Undertake emotional intelligence training and social intelligence training – training such as this allows you to understand and regulate yourself first to work well with others.
If you would like to purchase a copy of the People + Science Boardroom Psychological Safety Benchmark 2020 -2021 (Aust) please visit the 6peas resources page. 6peas is also conducting in-house Boardroom Briefings for boards and leadership teams. Organisational Psychological Safety Assessments for all teams is available.