Does a psychologically safe environment lead to better decision-making?

'Psychological safety is really around creating a space where people can have the uncomfortable, challenging conversations in a respectful way' executive says

Does a psychologically safe environment lead to better decision-making?

Recent research from the University of Canterbury has looked at the way psychological safety, independent thinking and inclusion can have a positive impact on team decision making.

The study involved a survey of 35 New-Zealand based decision making teams and found that those who described higher levels of psychological safety were more likely to report effective decision making.

“Over 60% of those who agreed to the statement ‘I feel safe offering new ideas, even if they aren’t fully formed plans’ also agreed with the statement ‘The selected solutions were of high quality’,” The Conversation reported.

But how else can psychological safety create more productive team meetings and how can HR teams foster a psychologically safe environment?

Psychological safety and risk taking

Katharina Naswall, professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of Canterbury, used Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson’s definition of psychological safety – whereby a team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.

“Which means that you can say things that you don't know whether other people will agree,” she told HRD New Zealand. “Or you don't know that this is going to be a popular opinion but you're not afraid to say it because you feel there won't be repercussions against or you won't be shut down.

“And that you're accepted in the team for who you are – that’s another sense of psychological safety. That it's okay to be different if you're different from the team. And also that mistakes are used as learning opportunities.”  

Lloyd Mander, founder and principal consultant at DOT Scorecard, collaborated with Naswall on the research and echoed her view on psychological safety.

“It's the danger, if there's an absence or insufficient psychological safety, [that] people are not going to take that risk and put themselves out there by sharing something that's not perhaps fully formed,” he said. “So then the group may miss out on information that they could have benefited from.”

Psychological safety and independent thinking

The research highlighted that when teams work in an environment with high psychological safety, they are more likely to share their diverse perspectives, which ultimately leads to better decision-making.

In addition, it can also support independent thinking, which can be beneficial for groups.

“From psychology research, we know that there's problems when people start thinking too much in the same way,” Naswall said. “You will have heard of group think which sets the group down a path and then, it may or may not be good, but other opportunities aren't looked at. So I think psychological safety is a really good way to counteract the risks of groupthink.”

How HR teams can promote psychological safety

Naswall described some ways HR teams and business leaders can strengthen psychological safety in organisations. One example was to giving teams a chance to get to know each other better.

“Build in that ‘getting to know each other a little bit’ in the team as a regular occurrence, not just letting it happen by accident,” she said. “Making just one connection with somebody makes it easier to then say, ‘Well, here's my view on something’. Or you might at least know whether somebody will receive it well or not potentially if you know a little bit more about them.”

Another method was for HR teams to have an awareness of the importance of having psychologically safe environments, Naswall said.

“It's leadership behaviours and the culture and climate of the team – how people interact with each other and what are the standards for interaction,” she said. “So if people shoot each other down when somebody has a good idea or if somebody responds really negatively when they hear criticism of their idea, it’s talking about how that actually impacts on how likely people are to share their ideas.”

In addition, Naswall emphasised the need to talk about the importance of how business leaders react to information that is brought to them.

“Because if they shoot the messenger, it's very unlikely that they're going to get bad news at a stage where it's easier to deal with it, rather than down the line when people can't hide it any longer,” she said.

More ways to strengthen psychological safety

Mander said one of the biggest misconceptions about psychological safety is that it’s only about having comfortable conversations.

“If, within your team or within your HR team, you're largely only getting comfortable conversations, that probably means that people are holding back, people are not actually sharing what they're really thinking,” he said. “So, for me, psychological safety is really around creating a space where people can have the uncomfortable, challenging conversations in a respectful way.”

And if leaders want individuals to share their ideas, they have to be a role-models for providing their perspectives as well, Mander said.

“If they want other people to put themselves out there and take a risk by sharing something that's not a fully-formed idea, then leaders have to demonstrate that too,” he said.

Different perspectives in a constructive way

For Mander, another way to create a psychologically safe environment is to have humility, where individuals are comfortable combining different perspectives in a constructive way.

“So we [as a group] are smarter than any of us individually is the concept,” he said.

Mander also emphasised the need to have curiosity when responding to someone’s idea in a team – instead of reacting negatively or dismissively – providing positive reinforcement to those who speak up.

“One really good description I've heard from a publication recently was have a rule that ‘No one speaks twice, until we all speak once’,” he said. “And so just to make sure that everyone is included in that conversation, because there is of course the tendency where some people are more comfortable contributing more.”

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