How to measure psychological safety

Why measuring psychological safety is key to improving team happiness, engagement and productivity.

Co-authored with Jamie Irving; originally published here. 

We can probably all agree that, as we are likely to spend more time with our colleagues than our friends and family, feeling comfortable in our team is pretty important on a personal level.

However, it is also incredibly important at an organisational level that teams feel safe to take the interpersonal risks associated with speaking up publicly, asking for help, admitting when they’re wrong and experimenting.

These behaviours, coined learning behaviours, are of utmost importance for teams to succeed in navigating complex and ambiguous situations (which, arguably, most of us find ourselves in these days).

While working from home may have changed whom we spend most of our time with physically, it hasn’t changed the importance of teams feeling psychologically safe.

Psychological safety, a shared belief that it is safe to take interpersonal risks within a team, has been shown to be a leading indicator of learning behaviours and team performance. 

People often say that they create a safe environment but how do they truly know unless they measure it and the team itself says that they work in a safe environment?

Seeing as the Talent Compass project is all about working through ambiguity to test assumptions in a lightweight manner, we figured the best way to know whether our team feels set up to succeed was to measure psychological safety as a team metric.

What we are measuring and how often?

We use Typeform to send our weekly survey (each question has a ‘relevant’ dog picture to accompany it)

Each week we send out a seven-question survey (designed by Amy Edmonson) that measures how safe the members of our team feel to take interpersonal risks:

  • If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you. (reverse-scored)
  • Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  • People on this team sometimes reject others for being different. (reverse-scored)
  • It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  • It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help. (reverse-scored)
  • No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  • Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

The response option to these questions is a 7-point Likert scale from which we can calculate an average score.

Likert scale

We also chose to include a few additional questions to understand how our team is feeling about their well-being in relation to achieving our goal:

  • It is clear what this team is supposed to accomplish.
  • Achieving this team’s goals is well within our reach.
  • This team can achieve its task without requiring us to put in unreasonable time or effort.
  • This team allows enough time for screen breaks, time outside and daily movement.

The ambiguous nature of this project requires us to be able to pivot quickly, so we decided a weekly cadence would help us identify when adjustments are needed.

Measuring psychological safety is as much about well-being as it is about capturing a leading indicator for performance

Every member of a team is integral to its success, and though we all have emotional and motivational peaks and valleys it’s when a whole team is in a valley together that this becomes a problem.

Sometimes bad news can kill a team’s energy levels quickly, but mostly it’s a slow grind from good to bad. Being able to take a quick and easy temperature check is a useful tool that not only tells us when a team is down but more importantly tells us when things will be worse in the future. This is critical to managing a team’s well-being and motivation.

We hoped that filling out the survey and thus reading the questions above each week, would lead to team members remembering to prioritise behaving in ways that build psychological safety (and each other’s well-being). This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the team, one of whom said:

“The fact that it’s a recurring prompt means it’s always on our agenda as a team. It’s often easy to lose sight of this when deadlines approach, directions change, etc. but because we’ve had this as part of our team culture from day 1, it’s in the collective subconscious now. And awareness is half the battle”

Remember, psychological safety isn’t built by playing it safe

It’s important to remember that by “safe” we don’t mean everything has to be or is rosy all the time.

In fact, those meetings that sometimes feel sticky in isolation can actually be a really good sign of team psychological safety when viewed in a wider context — showing that the team is open to challenge and being challenged. (Just as long as at least one person in the room helps the team move on!) While our team’s psychological safety score has steadily increased over time, there have been some ups and downs on this project, as there are on any project.

The most important thing is increasing everyone’s awareness of the importance of feeling safe to communicate with each other openly about what isn’t working and where they need help and support.

And what better way to encourage this than to measure it? Give it a try and let Meg or Jamie what you find out in the process. 

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