4 Thoughts on Psychological Safety

4 thoughts on psychological safety: How does it relate to trust? Can it exist between avatars? How does it spread in a team? Can it exist when without direct communication?

We throw around terms like psychological safety and building trust with others as if it’s a neatly defined object, easily integrated into real-life interaction, just like installing an(other) app. But it’s more complicated (isn’t all more complicated once we dare to look at it more closely?). I’m offering you four facets of psychological safety:

  1. A statement: Psychological safety isn’t the same as trust. It goes beyond trust.
  2. A question: Can your team be psychologically safe if (some) team members hide behind avatars?
  3. A statement: Psychological safety is a group characteristic, not part of your personality. It depends on everyone’s actions and perceptions.
  4. A question: Can your team be psychologically safe if team members don’t talk directly about their and others’ errors?

This post was inspired by thoughtful interaction in RnDAO and Twitter. Thank you 💜.

Psychological safety > Trust

It’s a hard truth: trust takes ages to build and a second to lose. Trust is about reliability and predicting another person’s actions. Beyond trust, there is psychological safety, the knowledge that others will not embarrass, reject or punish you for speaking up. Psychological safety is part of trust, but trust can exist without psychological safety. Trust is about knowing how other people will behave, as in “I trust him to be a jerk during the call” or “I trust her to not do her work again”. Trusting someone means being confident in how they will behave.

Psychological safety is more than trust: It has a significant emotional component. Psychological safety opens doors to talk about mistakes and for teams to be comfortable working through tension.

But can psychological safety in teams exist when people hide behind anonymous avatars and names? Can you build a relationship with someone whose true identity you don’t know?

Hiding behind avatars to be true to yourself

Soul is a Chinese social network where people can only use avatars*. No real names. But the founder, Zhang Lu,  argues that this mask allows people to be true to themselves and be their “whole self”. Society’s norms create pressures to develop specific identities aligned with ideas about what it means to be female, male, tech, nerd, German, Chinese, etc. Falling out of line is stressful and hence bad for mental health. Therefore, the founder of Soul argues that having an outlet where people can be their authentic selves reduces society’s negative impact on mental health. Anonymity is a cloak of invisibility, protecting people when they want to diverge from society’s norm. How healthy this divergence is for the person “hiding” and the people with whom this avatar interacts depends on the real-life community the avatar lives in and tries to hide from.

“The virtual identities also create more immersive social experiences. They make users feel safer and enable them to be their true selves. “

But can you build psychological safety with someone if you only know their virtual identity?

How our perceptions of interactions fuel psychological safety

At least since Google's Project Aristotle, psychological safety has been well-known in managerial circles. It is a fact that psychologically safe teams perform better. According to early research from Professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety predicts a team’s ability to learn and perform better.

But how to create a psychologically safe team? Psychological safety isn't a personal characteristic like personality. It doesn't just depend on one person trying to act in a psychologically safe way. . It is a group characteristic. Other people's perception also counts. For psychological safety to exist in a team, team members must behave in a psychologically safe way (e.g., don’t roll your eyes when someone asks for your opinion or approaches you for a question), and the interaction has to be perceived as psychologically safe. For example, if you ask a team member a question and they laugh, you could think, “my team member was laughing at my question because it’s stupid,” or “my team member was laughing at my question because she had the same question some time ago”.  People have to behave psychologically safe, and they have to be perceived to behave like that.

Imagine you interact with a team member. This interaction is positive: you received helpful feedback and know how to improve your slides. Thanks to this positive interaction, you mentally update your perception of this team member (+1 for giving advice). That's the first step. But this +1 needs to first reverberate through the team for the team to be more psychologically safe.

Now the person with whom you interacted isn't blind or oblivious to how you perceived the interaction. That person notices your positive perception of the encounter. Also, the person realizes that more people reach out to her over time for advice and feedback. And it is this experience of being asked for feedback that increases a person's sense of psychological safety and, through this, the team's level of psychological safety. People's reactions to interaction events create a psychological safety spiral.

Psychological safety is about people openly discussing errors, usually their own errors. But it can also be the mistakes of others. Do you talk about errors in a team setting for everyone to learn, or is it better done in a 1:1 meeting? Do you engage in a difficult conversation speaking in clear terms, or use hints to indicate the error?

Is being direct rude?

When we talk about feedback, we mean praising someone by pointing out the good things they have done and criticizing the areas they fall short of expectations. Often the mantra is to praise in public and criticize in private. The logic is simple: Hearing what someone needs to improve can be awkward, humiliating, or an open and malicious display of power.

Giving someone negative feedback implies direct communication. As feedback should be specific to be actionable, when giving negative feedback, the feedback giver spells out exactly how the other person failed. There is no gray zone. This direct communication is valued in some national cultures while a major faux pas in others - especially when given in a group setting. Clearly pointing out someone’s areas for improvement damages the 1:1 relationship.

Being direct can either be a sign of honesty or cruelty. When discussing psychological safety, I mentioned its emotional component, how it relates to speaking up and talking about errors, and that it is a group characteristic. Direct communication can destroy a team’s psychological safety if not everyone agrees on the value of this form of constructive criticism. But teams need to learn about their mistakes.

Is a team psychologically safe if errors are only voiced in indirect terms, without attribution to a specific person, or without clearly indicating the impact of this mistake?

What do you think? Tweet your thoughts to @katerinabohlec.

Thank you to Foster community members for improving and editing an earlier draft.

*The social app Soul is backed by Tencent, a Chinese multi-media arm. The company is supposed to have strong ties with the Chinese political party, collecting data for them, or at least following national security laws and sharing data. Consequently, users might only be anonymous on the platform.

Subscribe to System Thinking

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.