Psychological safety

Building (psychological) safety

Safety is the foundation on which cultures are built.

Safety is the foundation on which cultures are built. Humans use a series of subtle gestures called belonging cues to create safe connection in groups. Examples of belonging cues include eye contact, body language, and vocal pitch. There are three basic qualities of belonging cues: 1) energy invested in the exchange, 2) treating individuals as unique and valuable, and 3) signaling that the relationship will sustain in the future. Here, I collect my best practices.

Techniques to build psychological safetyHire me as a facilitator

I guess my obsession with psychological safety started when one of the best managers I’ve ever encountered in an organisation left the company. After him leaving, a lot of things changed. It felt less ‘safe’. Less safe not in the sense that there would be barbarians lingering in the hallways to ambush you, but in the sense that people felt less empowered to do things. Up untill him leaving, whether you were the new intern or the most seasoned manager on his team, if you made a big mistake -as long as you did it with the best intentions- he would always have your back. With him leaving, that feeling was lost.

My interest was even more sparked with trainings I did with Hyper Island and Liberating Structures where building safety was one of the recurring subjects. My thinking was further massively influenced by The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle (you can probably tell by the text below). This page is my intent to collect my ideas, best practices, models and tools that help build pyschological safety.

Building psychological safety

Safety is the foundation on which cultures are built.  Humans use a series of subtle gestures called belonging cues to create safe connection in groups. Examples of belonging cues include eye contact, body language, and vocal pitch. There are three basic qualities of belonging cues: 1) energy invested in the exchange, 2) treating individuals as unique and valuable, and 3) signaling that the relationship will sustain in the future.

Switching from fear to belonging

Our unconscious brain is obsessed with sensing danger and craving social approval from superiors. Belonging cues, when repeated, create psychological safety and help the brain shift from fear to connection. On receiving belonging cues, it switches roles and focuses on creating deeper social bonds with the group. This means that belonging happens from outside in, when the brain receives constant signals that signal closeness, safety, and a shared future.

Techniques to build safety

Building safety requires you to recognize small cues, respond quickly, and deliver a targeted signal. This comes with a learning curve and below are some techniques that help:

  • Show Vulnerability: Instead of hiding weakness to appear competent, leaders must expose fallibility and actively invite feedback. This evokes a connection in the listener who feels “how can I help”?

  • Embrace the Messenger: Embrace and encourage members who deliver tough feedback or bad news that matters to the team. This creates safety and encourages people to speak the truth fearlessly.

  • Preview Future Connections: This involves showing the team where they are headed by making a connection between now and the future.

  • Overdo Thank-Yous:  Research shows that a thank-you from one person makes people behave far more generously to others in the group. Thank You’s are belonging cues that create safety, connection and motivation.

  • Hire Meticulously and Eliminate Bad Apples:  Who is in and who is out is one of the most powerful signals a group can send. On completing training Zappos offers $2000 to any trainee who seeks to quit.  Successful groups display zero tolerance to poor behavior.

  • Create Collison-Rich Spaces: Collisions, serendipitous personal encounters, are the life of any organization driving community, creativity and cohesion. Design of spaces should be optimized to create more collisions. Designing for physical proximity creates a whole set of effects including increased connections and a feeling of safety. At a distance below 8 meters the frequency of communication increases exponentially.

  • Ensure Everyone has a Voice: Leaders must actively seek out connections and make sure everyone is heard. For example, some do this by making a rule that meetings don’t end until everyone speaks. Others do this by holding regular open-reviews where anyone can pitch in.

  • Capitalize on Threshold Moments: When someone joins a group their brains are deciding whether to connect or not. Successful cultures capitalize on these moments to send powerful belonging cues. An OKR culture is an accountable culture, transparent and vision-based. The rulebook tells people what they can or can’t do, but the culture of the organization can tell people what they should do. Or, as business philosopher Dov Seidman puts it, “What we choose to measure is a window into our values, and into what we value.”

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