Psychological Safety: How to measure it and why it matters
April 25, 2023
You've just received employee satisfaction survey results. To your surprise, you've found that team members don't feel that their contribution to teamwork is seen and appreciated. How is this possible? Why didn't they tell you? Why is it that when you ask them to express their opinion in a meeting, they are silent and only give you feedback now? You've probably come across a significant manifestation of low psychological safety.
Symptoms of low psychological safety
To start with, it is worth recalling that psychological safety (hereafter PS) is about the ability to act and engage with the team: to ask questions, make suggestions, and express disagreement, without fear of negative consequences, e.g. punishment, unpleasant comments, humiliation, etc.
Formally, it may look like the team is working quite well: there are no conflicts or arguments, the boss never raises his voice, and the team has a beer together once a month. If you ask team members what they think about the trust, atmosphere, relationships, mood, etc., in the team (i.e., PS), they will probably tell you that it's pretty ok. Nonetheless, psychological safety in such a team can be quite low. We need to dig deeper to understand what is going on in the team in terms of PS.
Some signs of low psychological safety include:
- Employees don't ask many questions at meetings.
- It is not customary in the team to ask others for help. Everybody has to help themselves.
- Employees hide their mistakes and blame others when their mistakes are found out.
- Feedback is often neither given nor asked for.
- There are hardly any disagreements or differences of opinion in the team.
- The team avoids difficult conversations and problematic topics.
- Team members compete with each other.
If you're seeing any of these signs in your team or organization, it's time to start looking at psychological safety. It's important to materialize what is often intangible. Data can help you do this.
Measuring psychological safety
A short survey can be used to measure the level of PS. You can create it yourself or involve a certified PS consultant in the process.
You can start by evaluating the 10 following claims. Rate these statements on a 5-point scale.
A value of 1 on the scale means I do not agree at all. A value of 5 means I strongly agree.
- On this team, I understand what is expected of me.
- We value outcomes more than outputs or inputs, and nobody needs to “look busy”.
- If I make a mistake on this team, it is never held against me.
- When something goes wrong, we work as a team to find the systemic cause.
- All members of this team feel able to bring up problems and tough issues.
- Members of this team never reject others for being different and nobody is left out.
- It is safe for me to take a risk on this team.
- It is easy for me to ask other members of this team for help.
- Nobody on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
- My unique skills and talents are valued and utilised in my work as part of this team.
The maximum number of points that an employee can receive is 50. The maximum for a team of ten members is 500 points. However, such a score is more indicative of latent fear than actual reality.
The score is just the beginning. Further work needs to be done with the data. We need to tread carefully in order not to harm the team even more. It starts with figuring out who should start the evaluation and tell others about it. It ends with the team talking about the results.
Safe space thanks to an independent observer
If you expect to have a low PS score, we do not recommend that the team leader, or in some cases HR, initiate the conversation about PS or its measurement. In this case, the best solution is to bring in an external consultant.
A certified consultant has deeper insight when working with data, and is also emotionally uninvolved in the team dynamics. This allows him or her to provide a safe space for each team member.
What is the process of measuring PS in the presence of an external consultant?
- Contract: Setting the expectations and the process. Setting the contract between the consultant and the team leader.
- Communication: The consultant describes the concept and the benefit of PS, and sends an assessment to each team member.
- Data collection: Team members anonymously fill in the assessment and get their individual score.
- Data evaluation: What is the attitude to risk and failure in this team? To what extent are team members willing to help each other? How does the team approach difficult conversations? To what extent do team members feel included and accepted by other team members?
- Debriefing of results: The team meets with the PS consultant to analyze the data collected. Together the team assesses what steps lead to strengthening their PS, and creates new rules.
- Accompanying the team: Team coaching, usually lasting 4 to 6 months. Its aim is to support the team in learning the principles of psychological safety.
Organizational psychologist Olga Zimmermann is a certified psychological safety practitioner with Fearless Organization. She regularly discusses the topic of psychological safety in webinars attended by team members and their managers, or solely managers - depending on the needs of the team and the company. In addition to the webinars, Olga also helps teams and companies with the entire PS measurement process (followed by the team debriefing and follow-up).
Contact us at email@example.com - we are happy to help you measure and calibrate your psychological safety.