At the heart of our conference on Emotional Intelligence was the desire to create psychological safety for our teams so that individuals feel able to ask questions, to interrogate decisions and ensure that we do not fall foul of “groupthink”.  The following excerpt from our Guide to Emotional Intelligence explains why it matters.

Psychological safety is the ability, or perceived ability to say or do what you feel is right without fear of judgement or retribution. It is a term first used by Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson in 1999, when she identified the concept of psychological safety in work teams.

When it is present, team members feel able to contribute and have permission to succeed or to fail and learn. Without it, the result is, at best, underperformance; at worst, it leads to a demotivated and deskilled workforce where problems go unreported, opportunities are missed, and failures occur.  In such large and complex undertakings as major projects it is imperative that every team member plays their part in ensuring that risks are not overlooked, and errors of judgement are not allowed to go ahead unchallenged.

“A lack of psychological security can start to impact the outcome of projects – unless we start to address this issue, we will start to lose talent from the industry.”
Dr Syinyi Phoon, Programme Manager, Jacobs

Internet giant Google managed to boost psychological safety in their workplaces through six simple steps:

  1. Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary. Humans hate losing more than they love winning. A perceived loss triggers attempts to re-establish fairness through competition, criticism, or disengagement.
  2. Speak human to human. Underlying every confrontation are universal needs such as respect, competence, social status, and autonomy. Recognising these deeper needs naturally elicits trust and promotes positive language and behaviours.
  3. Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves. Confront difficult conversations head-on by preparing for likely reactions – perhaps also by gathering evidence to counter defensiveness.
  4. Replace blame with curiosity. Blame and criticism escalate conflict, leading to defensiveness and to disengagement. The alternative to blame is curiosity. If you believe you already know what the other person is thinking, then you are not ready to have a conversation.
  5. Ask for feedback on delivery. Asking for feedback disarms your opponent, illuminates blind spots in communication skills, and models fallibility, which increases trust in leaders.
  6. Measure psychological safety. Regularly ask your team how safe they feel and what could enhance their feeling of safety; use surveys on psychological safety and other team dynamics.

Those of us who are office based have spent almost a year working in isolation in our homes.  Many of us working in major projects may wonder how long it will be before we again “speak human to human”.  Undoubtedly creating the right conditions for safety in the workplace when the workplace is so dispersed and disconnected is a challenge that many Major Projects Association members are trying to resolve through regular virtual meetings and pulse surveys.  A blog from last year outlined the measures some organisations are taking.

My hope is that the experiences we have had during the pandemic will help us to return to a workplace where psychological safety is held to be as important that physical safety.  We definitely need to “build back better”.

Manon Bradley