You almost can’t read any blog post on leadership, organisational culture, or transformation at the moment without some mention of the words ‘Psychological Safety’. It seems to have had an incredible rise in popularity over the past 6–12 months — which perhaps correlates nicely with Amy Edmondson’s book ‘The Fearless Organisation’, though it’s not the first book on the subject, and certainly won’t be the last.

So, we won’t delve too much into ‘what is psychological safety’ other than to refer to William Kahn’s seminal definition of the term in his paper Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work as:

“being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career“

Its popularity was helped significantly with the publication of Google’s Project Artistotle, a study into what makes effective teams was published. It studied 180 teams (primarily engineering, though some sales too), and it concluded that high performing teams are less about strong individuals on a team, and more about the relationships and interactions within those teams. It found that the most important aspect to any high performing team was the elusive psychological safety.

Psychological safety should be differentiated from simple “trust”, and it is important to dispel the misconception that this is about simply being “nice” to each other. The reality is quite the opposite. It is about having an environment in place where it is safe for teams to bring conflict, disagreement and experimental ideas without fear of negative consequences.

This is a topic essential to all organisations wishing to improve culture and performance, and is incredibly pertinent to GSK as it undergoes a transformation, and adapts to changing ways of work brought about by a global pandemic.

Both Edmondson and Google found that those teams that make more mistakes are often higher performing. All evidence suggested that the highest performing teams were more willing to talk about their mistakes and so learn from them.

It’s key to point out as part of this post that Psychological safety is a group level phenomenon — that is, unlike trust which tends to manifest at a interpersonal one-to-one level. Psychological safety is a group level dynamic and encompasses trust, and so much more. It is also fully achievable even if your organisation is not psychologically safe. You can do this as a team, even in a caustic environment if you have a good support structure and good leader in place.

Who is this post about?

It’s worth calling out that this is my experience and journey of attempting to put in place psychological safety within one small team within one small part of GSK. GSK is a global entity of over 99,000 employees, so I can only reflect upon the experiences I’ve had locally. Part of the hopes of this blog post is to share some practices that may well be useful to others, both elsewhere in GSK, and in the wider community. It will also act as a vehicle for discussion within GSK teams and perhaps for those teams to share some of their specific experiences with others.

The Importance of Psychological Safety

Before we delve into the main document, it’s worth calling out the ‘why’ behind psychological safety — this could be seen as some new age focus on the cultural identity of an organisation without any substance. Why would a team start the journey if it was hard to get there, and there were no perceived benefits?

Thankfully the benefits are manifold:

  • Trust — this is one of the early building blocks of psychological safety, and is key to call out. Trusting those around us to have our best interests in play helps us take interpersonal risk. Building this up should be considered key. Having it in place enables so many important areas for teams — experimentation, vulnerability and sharing.
  • **Challenge / Conflict **— these are often looked upon negatively within organisations. As Patrick Lencioni highlighted in 5 dysfunctions of a team, conflict is one of the key building blocks to high performing teams. Those teams who avoid conflict will never be truly effective, and never truly challenge weak or bad ideas.
  • **Bringing our authentic selves **— there is significant evidence (though there are also detractors) to suggest that people who not able to be their true and authentic selves at work are actually costing businesses money. Imagine an environment where everyone can be their best self, and everyone can feel able to represent their own views. Stonewall released figures around the LGBT community that indicated that not being our true selves could easily add up to 30% in lost productivity.
  • Ideas — when there is no fear of being negatively viewed or negative consequences to our thoughts for improvement, when there’s only healthy challenge around ideas, we create an environment that allows teams to be their most creative selves.
  • Results / Outcomes — psychological safety at its best sees teams hold each other accountable towards end goals — outcomes for their customers or business. Teams become more challenging of things that don’t add to the desired result, and that ensuing debate helps either validate outcomes, or generate new ideas that can more easily deliver against them.
  • Engagement — we’ve all sat in meetings where only one or two people talk (generally these people will also be higher in the hierarchy or more senior). A psychologically safe environment encourages all voices to be heard, encourages call outs, and leads to higher levels of engagement on teams. Studies show that disengaged employees cost ~34% of their salary through various losses — the numbers are staggering. Engaged employees are a huge competitive advantage when only 21% of employees report that they are highly engaged at work.

And key among these is ‘what happens when it’s not there’. We’ve likely all worked in environments where trust has eroded, leaders aren’t open, ideas are ignored or minimised, and fear is the underlying emotion. We take just our bare minimum selves into the workplace so to avoid the interpersonal risk of doing anything else. We can see from the studies that lack of trust and healthy conflict reduce the quality of ideas and make our employees disengaged. To not have psychological safety is to cost our businesses money.

The theory sounds great — how do we make it real within our small team at GSK?

What a lot of articles tend to do is stop here, or go into some high level conceptual view on how your team and organisation can step towards psychological safety. We wanted to go beyond that and share our experiences in our team at GSK over the past 12 months of attempting to achieve a psychologically safe workplace.

As you will see as you read this blog, we’re not there yet — and it’s one of those things we feel will never be truly ‘done’ — it’s an ongoing attention to behaviours, leadership, trust, respect, and the organisation, and as all of these shift, so too will our activities need to shift to maintain the environment we have in place.

It’s key to point out that this is hard. Really hard. Psychological safety will not come easily to your team, and you should not expect to see results overnight — if your team is newly formed, it could easily take many months. Even once you have a good environment in place and feel they have achieved it, it will still need constant and ongoing attention.

Steps towards Psychological Safety

You can’t fix it if you don’t measure it!

As with anything, if you can’t measure it, how do you know where you are, and how do you know if you’re improving (or, more worryingly, regressing)? We started on this journey by asking ourselves ‘how psychologically safe are we now?’ Thankfully, Amy Edmondson comes to hand with a great, short 7 point likert questionnaire. Those questions, rated from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree are:

  1. If I make a mistake in this team, it is held against me.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk in this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

In our team, we set up a simple google forms collection point, allowed people to identify their line manager and make comments if they wished, but ultimately just collected the data. We now do so once a quarter and track where we are, as well as our trending behaviours. There are only a small number of us, so that comes with its own statistical challenges (one outlier can alter the figures significantly) but as with other pulse/check-in surveys we do, it gives a good solid indicator and overview of where we are, and encourages discussion within a safe space. This survey is deliberately anonymous — we want absolute transparency in sharing, and we have found that anonymising provides the best opportunity for feedback.

This generates some interesting data points — and as you would expect, the key isn’t just to measure it, but to talk about it both individually and as a group. Exploring the data points and really delving into understanding the why, so we can potentially learn and create the best environment for our staff is crucial in this. This ongoing measurement gives us the trend direction also. As a team, we felt quarterly was sufficient, though we would encourage teams not to extend this too far — yearly really won’t give you enough data points to inspect and adapt, so an ongoing pulse for this really feels appropriate. You are building a culture here.

Strategies that support psychological safety

Our Culture is Our Behaviours, and culture flows downhill

In talking about culture, we cannot look at slogans on walls or high level missions — it boils down to behaviours, especially those of leaders. Our leaders attempt to model vulnerability, weakness and provide an environment where challenge, conflict and debate are the norm. We hold fortnightly sessions, alternating between cross team demos (with open Q&A) and a forum for all team members to bring any issues, concerns and queries on any topic to the wider group. These have had some great debate in the past 12 months, and have provided a really good window for issues to get safely aired and discussed.

Servant Leadership

This is perhaps the least tangible/actionable of our approaches, as it’s more a mindset than a strict set of behaviours, but it’s worth covering as it’s foundational in our relationship as leaders with our teams, and you can read up more on servant leadership elsewhere. We’d not deliberately call our style of leadership ‘Servant’. It is obviously true that different times and different situations require varying approaches, so it may be that a situation would demand transformational, democratic, or charismatic leadership. We do however tend to default to a position of servant leadership for most activity.

Our aim as leaders is to provide the best conditions for people to excel in their roles and add value for the business, for our customers, for our patients. We are also charged with helping those people grow into the best versions of themselves. It’s easier to do that by serving those people than controlling them. We understand that it is our teams that are the ultimate value and success drivers of the business. Our ability to deliver value to our customers is most often in the hands of those we lead.

Servant Leadership Model

If you find that your teams are following the more traditional leadership model above, we’d urge you to experiment with that inverted pyramid — you can do so by seeking feedback, seeing suggestion, and including the team in decision making that impacts them, as well as a number of other activities. Staff who are able to co-create their environment and their direction take far more ownership, and are far more willing to share and bring their most effective selves to debate and conflict.

Transparency in sharing

If agile has taught us anything, it teaches us that making our work visible is a key part to getting wider understanding to it all. We expect that in our teams, and we also expect that in our leaders. Our leadership team has instigated a number of initiatives to try to provide transparency and clarity on the work we do. In particular, we have:

  • ‘The Manager Visibility Wall’ — a kanban board of all work that the leaders have visible to the whole team, and updated weekly. It gives the team a window into the wider work of the leadership team.
  • Ryan, the leader of our department, shares his 15five pulse each week — detailing any key activities, but also struggles and complexities he’s facing and that window onto the ‘up and out’ view of his role within the organisation has proven invaluable.
  • We also have a weekly leadership team meeting, and we publish the minutes of discussion to the team for transparency too. We’ve found that this level of transparency generates good discussion with individuals on the team, and builds trust that the leaders aren’t secreted away but are out there trying their best to support the team in their delivery and their growth within the organisation.

Our Book Club

We hold a monthly book club with the team, and all vote on the books each month. We’ve had some great books that I feel form the basis of some of the key concepts of psychological safety in teams. The whole book club has read and debated:

A number of us have also read along with books such as ‘The Fearless Organisation’ (Amy Edmondson), ‘Daring Greatly’ (Brené Brown), ’Turn the Ship Around’ (L David Marquet), ‘The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error’ (Sidney Dekker), ‘Drive’ by Daniel Pink and ‘The Joy of Work’ (Bruce Daisley). All of these have become talking points and data points for conversations on self growth and team growth. We run our book club in the lean coffee format, so every voice is encouraged, and then the group vote on those questions they most want to debate, which we’ve found is another great way to empower others to debate. Our full book list is available if you are thinking of starting up a book club yourself, and we’ve been lucky in helping a few other teams within the org to setup their own.

Our journey with Emotional Intelligence

The team have spent some time with some formal training and personal study around emotional intelligence. It’s one of the pivotal skills in a team building up trust and attempting to have healthy conflict. We have all in our time suffered an amygdala hijack and our lizard brain has kicked in. We have mostly regretted the outcomes when that has happened. The team endeavours to make emotional intelligence one of the skills they value in each other, and it has become part of the conversation, both at a team level and in 1:1s.

Weekly Checkins

We use a tool called 15five to hold weekly checkins with the team. It takes a pulse from the team on how they’re feeling about work, and how they’re feeling in themselves. We call out mental health specifically in this (as it’s incredibly important to us that the team are supported and we can build up connections between ourselves). As you will see below, it’s very easy to see how the team are feeling on a week to week basis, and trend over time. This not only provides a great aggregation for everyone in the team (this isn’t just a management tool), but it provides a great datapoint for 1:1 discussions too. If I feel a ‘2 out of 5’ this week about the work, that’s an immediately easy discussion point for my weekly 1:1 with my boss. If my mental health has been consistently a ‘6 out of 7’ for the past 8 weeks, but this week I’m a ‘4’, it opens up a window to have a safe conversation about it. It’s worth pointing out clearly though, this isn’t about rising the numbers and having a high score — this is about understanding and talking about the feelings and thoughts of the team so that we can best support each other. A low number may be no worse than a high number on any particular week, it’s entirely about the context and conversation behind it. If it’s been back to back meetings and a lot of complexity or bureaucracy this week? Of course feeling a 1 or 2 is appropriate — but it always encourages us to have a chat about it and learn from it. This isn’t about the tool, and very much about the process of ongoing measurement and understanding — you could achieve the same thing with a simple google forms. The team know this tool exists entirely to support them and to help us as leaders to help them too. This checkin works best when tied to the cadence of your 1:1s, so weekly may not work well for all. Between the checkin and the 1:1, we find we get a really active pulse of the team as individuals, and also get to surface any talk about any concerns regularly.

Regular 1:1s

If supporting the people who add value is part of our overall view of leadership, then regular 1:1s are the touchpoint to maximising that. Most staff will have weekly 1:1s, and the agenda is very much driven by them. See an example of some of the content that we feel makes up a good 1:1. The 1:1 is the employee’s meeting, and can bring about any discussion points they want to raise, but it’s also a great place to talk about them personally (as Kim Scott highlights, ‘Caring Personally’ about our teams is one of the key facets to radical candor), but also to coach and mentor them in their growth and their challenges. These regular touchpoints are essential in creating the right environment for our staff.

So, are we now psychologically safe?

As I highlighted earlier, this is hard — really hard! The short answer is, we’re in a far better place than we would have been had we not had some focus on this. Teams will ebb and flow, change and adapt, and will always require attention in this space. Psychological safety, as with team culture and many other things is never a finished article and you can expect to have to monitor, respond and grow together. Within our team, it’s become part of our everyday language now, but there are still situations where we don’t get it right. As highlighted, we measure our position on it quarterly with a small survey, then talk as a team on any areas for concern and focus over the coming quarter. Psychological safety, like a good culture, is hard fought and easily lost the second you turn your back on it. The important advice for any team looking to improve upon their psychological safety is to start that journey now, and listen. Listen to what the team are saying, listen to what they’re not saying, and use the tools and techniques mentioned above, as well as any others you feel work well for you, to take on the journey of continual improvement.

Next steps — let’s start a discussion

We’ve highlighted some of the things we’ve done that have worked for us. They may not work for you, every team is different. We’d love to chat to other teams who are on similar journeys, or even those who haven’t yet started, and we are entirely open to doing a team share. What has worked for you? What didn’t? What are your concerns in starting on the pathway? Which parts of the above have your team struggled most with? The more we talk about it, the better for us all. Please reach out.