Psychological safety is the most important factor in high performing teams.
This practice will help you measure the degree of psychological safety in a team, and which aspects of psychological safety are strongest and weakest in the team, which provides you with the ability to identify opportunities for improvement.
Regularly measuring psychological safety will provide a barometer for the psychological health of the team, and in itself raise psychological safety by facilitating explicit discussion about safety and culture. In the early stages of a team (for instance, in the "Forming" or "Storming" Tuckman stages), it may be useful to carry this exercise out as regularly as once every 1-2 weeks. In more mature team stages, once every 2-3 months may be more appropriate.
Note: Be very, very careful and intentional when carrying out this practice. If this is done poorly, not followed up, timed badly, or used as a tool to incentivise, compare, or punish team members or managers, it will be destructive rather than constructive.
Before embarking on a journey to build a high performing team through psychological safety, it’s important to understand where the team are now. By measuring the degree of psychological safety felt by team members, we can more intelligently utilise and adopt behaviours and practices that improve psychological safety in different ways.
Create a survey, using Google Forms, Microsoft Forms, Typeform, Survey Monkey, or whichever tool suits best, containing the following statements.
Ask your team to score agreement with each statement on a 5 point Likert scale similar to the below:
1: Strongly disagree
3: Neither agree nor disagree
5: Strongly agree
Be conscious of the native language of team members. It may be beneficial to translate these statements into native languages in order to obtain the truest responses.
Ensure that responses can be anonymous (though they do not need to be). This will help team members feel confident being honest.
At the end of the survey, add a question which invites some qualitative feedback, such as “Please add any comments you would like to share to elaborate on or explain your responses. This will help identify ways to improve as a team.”
From the results of the survey, identify the statements with the lowest average scores.
Make a note also of statements with a high variance. This indicates that there is disagreement in the team about that aspect of psychological safety.
Use the context below to steer behaviours and actions to increase psychological safety on the team via open leadership and modern practices, before repeating the survey.
1 - On this team, I understand what is expected of me.
If team members don’t know what is expected of them, they are likely to feel less confident and comfortable in their work, and misunderstandings will be common. This includes expectations about both delivery (speed, quality, cost etc.) and behaviour (everything from dress code and punctuality to coding standards).
2 - We value outcomes more than outputs or inputs, and nobody needs to “look busy”.
Outcomes, such as revenue generated or satisfied customers, matter more than outputs, such as emails sent, lines of code written or meetings attended. When team members feel safe to focus on what matters to the business, they will make decisions that improve outcomes, even if those decisions reduce output and thus make them appear less busy.
3 - If I make a mistake on this team, it is never held against me.
A psychologically safe team will never blame a member of the team for a mistake if their intentions were good. Indeed, by enabling mistakes to be made without a fear of blame, you enable innovation and risk taking that can drive your organisation ahead of the competition.
4 - When something goes wrong, we work as a team to find the systemic cause.
This one is related to the previous point but important enough to warrant its own question. If blameless retrospectives or Root Cause Analyses are used effectively to find the root causes of mistakes and failures, not only do team members feel safer, but every single “failure” offers an opportunity for shared learning and improvement. Incidents become a gift, not a threat.
5 - All members of this team feel able to bring up problems and tough issues.
In a psychologically safe team, all members of the team are able to raise difficult issues, ranging from personal struggles to concerns about other members of the team. This is crucial for ensuring the team is a space where members can be vulnerable enough to share when they need help, and courageous enough to have challenging conversations.
6 - Members of this team never reject others for being different and nobody is left out.
Evidence shows that diversity in a team results in higher quality products and happier team members (See: McKinsey: Why Diversity Matters), but diversity in itself is not enough; it is crucial that all team members feel they belong. A sense of belonging can facilitate high performance because it means every member of the team feels included in the decisions made and invested in the outcomes generated. This is particularly crucial for remote and distributed teams, where it is more difficult to see if a team member is disengaged.
7 - It is safe for me to take a risk on this team.
Mistakes happen unintentionally, but risks are about knowingly taking actions that might not work, or may have unintended consequences. Some risk taking is essential for innovation and progress. Psychological safety provides the framework for positive, measured risk-taking, enabling innovation and competitive advantage.
8 - It is easy for me to ask other members of this team for help.
In psychologically unsafe teams, team members try to hide their perceived weaknesses or vulnerabilities, which prevents them from asking for help. If they can’t access the help they need, the performance of both that individual and therefore the whole team will be impacted. This is a key factor in why safe teams achieve better results than unsafe teams.
9 - Nobody on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
In an unsafe team, members compete with each other to achieve their individual goals, and may even undermine other team members if they believe that may boost their own results or elevate their “rank” within the team or organisation. In a psychologically safe team, that counter-productive competition doesn’t exist, and the success of the team is more important than looking good in the eyes of others.
10 - My unique skills and talents are valued and utilised in my work as part of this team.
We all bring our unique experiences, skills and knowledge to the teams that we’re in, but may not always feel safe to share these. Psychologically safe teams ensure that members are valued for being their true selves, and therefore provide space for each individual to maximise their potential from and share their unique skills and talents. If we do not utilise all the talents of the individuals on our teams, we are missing out on valuable opportunities for delivery and innovation.
Check out these great links which can help you dive a little deeper into running the Measuring Psychological Safety practice with your team, customers or stakeholders.