Of the five key components of effective teams that have been identified by researchers at Google, psychological safety is the most critical. The term “team psychological safety” was introduced by Harvard organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson in 1999; she defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
In Edmondson’s TEDx talk, she offers three actions people can take to foster team psychological safety:
- Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
- Acknowledge your own fallibility.
- Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.
Cory Snavely, who has led the Infrastructure Services Group at NERSC since 2016, previously worked in higher education and publishing. He’s also a musician and motorcycle rider, and he loves independent and experimental films. We asked him how he fosters psychological safety in his work.
Elements: Was there a time in your career when you did not feel psychologically safe, and how did you handle it?
Cory Snavely: The experience that immediately comes to mind is being new in a job. I think it’s natural, at least for me, to feel uncertainty and insecurity when taking a leap into a different industry, and often into an entirely unfamiliar organizational culture as well. In that situation, I, like many, I expect, will hang back and observe. Only after I identify others that I feel I can trust do I feel comfortable being myself.
Elements: In what ways have you started thinking differently about the concept of psychological safety in the Lab’s team environment?
Cory: If we pay close attention, we’ll start to notice how we all constantly fine-tune our behavior based on the comfort of our current situation. We may engage, we may self-censor. Isn’t it a great surprise when someone says or does something creative or brilliant that you never expected, clearly because they finally felt they could? That’s the kind of energy we could achieve at the Lab if we truly mastered psychological safety.
Elements: What would you recommend as a first step for supervisors who want to incorporate psychological safety in their work teams? What can individuals do?
Cory: It’s really important to get to know the signs of psychological safety. How do our colleagues look and act when they feel safe and when they don’t? If a meeting seems especially engaged and productive for everyone, take a second to step back and observe. What brought those circumstances about? If someone participated who rarely does, consider talking afterward both as encouragement and also to find out what felt different at that meeting.