Human Resources NZ: Want better output? Then focus on the safety of your team - Michelle Gibbings

In this article for Human Resources NZ, Michelle writes that when leaders think about ways to motivate their teams, safety isn’t something that would typically top the list of considerations, yet it plays a crucial role.

When leaders think about ways to motivate their teams, safety isn’t something that would typically top the list of considerations, yet it plays a crucial role.

People want to work in an environment where they feel safe – both physically and mentally. Today, creating healthy workplaces where people feel psychologically safe is appreciated as being just as important as other elements of safety.

In 2012, Google started research – code-named Project Aristotle – to figure out what made the best teams. Initially, they thought it would be about the smarts of the people in the group, but in time they realised it had far more to do with how the group connected and engaged.

A year into the five-year study, they discovered that having explicit group norms was fundamental. The next step was to figure out what team norms mattered the most. Further investigation and research concluded that at the core was the need for psychological safety; a term coined by Harvard Professor, Amy Edmonson.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2019, she said “Psychological safety isn’t about being nice. It’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other”. It is knowing your team won’t embarrass, reject or punish you, and where the team trusts and respects each other. Having these elements in place enables people to come to work and be their authentic self. Creating such an environment involves several critical elements.

Build the framework
Framing the work and ensuring everyone in the team is on the same page is part of this process. As the leader, ensure you have clear goals, responsibilities and ways of working together. Challenge yourself and consider: how are you creating clarity rather than confusion about work, deadlines, dependencies and challenges?

Invite involvement
Accept your role in being curious, humble, open to ideas, and having a growth mindset. Be willing to ask questions, listen and have established mechanisms for gathering input and facilitating discussions from your team members.

Ask yourself: are you creating the environment that embraces difficult questions and challenging conversations? What can you do to encourage more participation?

Set the standard
This approach fails if you don’t respond, set the standard, follow it and behave consistently. Your team will watch what you do and don’t say and do. Praise people for their efforts and remove the stigma that is often attached to failure by focusing on learnings and growth. When you are inconsistent, unreliable and your processes aren’t clear, your team will see a failure to act as an indication that there is no standard or that it’s inconsistently applied.

Check yourself and consider: what standards are in place? What actions have you implemented to create a psychologically safe work environment? How are you fostering genuine trust and care across the team?

Be open with your team
Be open with your team about your pressure points and what you do to manage stress and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Encourage your team members to take care of their physical and mental health. It helps if you, as the leader, role model selfcare behaviours. If you want progress in your team, then consider the impact that safety has on how your team connects, engages and works together.