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The Role (and benefits!) of Psychological Safety In Change

Contrary to what you may be seeing out there - psychological safety* isn't a new concept that just emerged. It's been around since 1999 when Amy Edmondson proposed the concept in her work at Harvard. And Google very successfully demonstrated the real world application of the concept with Project Aristotle in 2012.

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological Safety - the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes

A psychologically safe environment is one where everyone feels safe to be their authentic selves, speak up, express themselves, and appear vulnerable in front of others. Edmondson further defined it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

So some of the key features are:

  • a space for authenticity and vulnerability

  • a home for open communication and safe disclosures

  • a setting for supported innovation and experimentation

What are the benefits of a psychologically safe environment during change?

Trust smooths the path for change

When you create an environment of real and open leaders and team members, high trust follows close behind. And when we trust the people leading, and communicating, the change research shows that negative responses to change are reduced, regardless of whether the change is planned or unplanned.

When we operate in a safe and trusting environment, so many of those traditional 'resistance' behaviours aren't necessary, because many of those behaviours are triggered by fear, stress and a lack of trust in those around us, or those leading the change.

Responses to change need safe spaces

Change can be a time where people experience intense feelings.

Feelings of loss, fear, elation, joy, sadness, excitement, grief, impatience, frustration and anger - all of which are better expressed in space where disclosure is safe.

We also know that often these frustrations and fears can be connected to real world questions, concerns and ideas that are valid and often helpful to the final outcome of the change. Safety to express, without fear for their career, or self-worth, is the only way to uncover those better outcomes for everyone.

Change (and the people impacted) benefits from experimentation

An environment where it's safe to fail creates space for us to experiment and learn in change. Which means project change can listen to the feedback from stakeholders and create multiple options for the future - without the fear of punishment or humiliations if one of those options doesn't work.

We see human-centred design begin to really emerge because project teams have space to truly engage with those the project is serving, and actually try some options in order to find the right fit for the people at the centre of the process. Happier people, who've been engaged in the change they experience! And a change outcome that actually works for them! Wins all round.

You also get more than just benefits for change!

Green background with cutout of human head broken into four puzzle pieces fitted together. There is a hand reaching into the picture fitting the puzzle together

Training, supporting and coaching leaders to build and maintain psychologically safe

environments also contributes to the safe social systems within the organisation. Those safe social systems are all part of the psychosocial safety climate and more broadly create a sense that psychological health and safety are a priority through managed policies, systems and processes (not just a one off team leader who happens to do this well!)

If you're working on a change project there are some key ways you can improve the psychological safety of the teams you work with. Psychological safety in change can be game changer.

You can start today to learn how to connect and create safe spaces for change, collaboration and productivity.

Keen to encourage psychological safety in change?

Not sure what the first steps might be? Or tried something and it didn't quite work the way you expected?

Why not jump on a Clarity Call or give a Navigate Now session a try to sort out your next steps to getting your change mojo going.

*Not sure about the difference between psychological and psychosocial safety? Check out our handy explainer here.

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