Psychological safety in a world of uncertainty
by The Belbin Team | Victoria Bird, 02 Sep 2020
For many of us, the global pandemic has necessitated enormous changes in the way we work. Individuals and organisations alike find that the goalposts are shifting day-by-day. The boundaries of our work day are blurring and our personal lives are (quite literally) on display in the back of a Zoom call. We might have lost informal opportunities to speak to colleagues or managers about concerns or mistakes, and may even find ourselves having to announce them on a larger stage.
It’s now, when teams are at their most vulnerable, that psychological safety is most important.
What is psychological safety?
Google’s Project Aristotle found that, in order to succeed, team members need to feel safe to take risks and make mistakes without fear of recrimination. Whilst trust exists between individuals, psychological safety is a team construct.
Stressful situations prompt our fight, flight or flee response, which inhibits both our perspective and our reasoning abilities. Within a team, the stakes are higher still. In primal terms, being rejected from a group could mean struggling to find resources alone—a fight for survival. But whilst our evolutionary drive is to crave acceptance and nod along, the world of business needs us to speak out when things go wrong, adapt, take risks, fail and grow together.
Without psychological safety, a team is likely to founder. If people don’t feel able to speak out, it takes longer for mistakes to be identified. Conflicts which might be aired and resolved are allowed to fester. Or perhaps the team becomes embroiled in long-term strategies that ultimately fall foul of the ground moving beneath our feet.
By contrast, we become more open-minded, creative and resilient when we feel safe. We allow ourselves to think laterally and we’re more likely to keep a sense of humour when things go wrong.
Create an environment for success
If we are to foster an environment in which each team member feels confident in getting it wrong, there is work to do. We need to celebrate behavioural diversity and recognise the challenges where some are contributing in a different way to others. That’s where Belbin comes in.
What drives behaviour in your team? Understanding Team Roles is not simply about announcing our strengths at work, but also uncovering what motivates our behaviours. The reflection and discussion around the Belbin process make it easier for us to be vulnerable with our peers and to explore what safety might mean for each of us.
Whilst we all share certain needs (independence, autonomy, purpose, respect, to name but a few), there are other drivers which differentiate us. For example, fear of failure (in those with strong Completer Finisher tendencies) can often result in missed deadlines, whilst those with Teamworker propensities might avoid making decisions for fear of alienating some in the team. When communicating virtually, we might not witness the behavioural clues which would alert us to these dynamics, and be tempted to think someone merely unproductive.
Each time we anticipate and articulate these difficulties, and discover a strategy to move things forward, we build psychological safety too. Others in the team might not feel exactly the same burden, but they’ll realise that the team is a safe space to declare problems without blame, and seek resolutions.
Collaboration, not competition. The way we work now can blur the lines of responsibility and lead to new collaborative relationships. However, for some, this can pose a threat. We become competitive with other team members, we criticise without being constructive, or we withdraw and disengage. When we understand our behavioural roles as well as our functional ones, it’s easier to allocate work, anticipate and work around potential clashes before they cause upset. We might decide that the team is too small for two people to play the Shaper role, or ensure that the team’s two Specialists have clearly-defined boundaries which prevent them from competing over work territory.
The feedback loop. It isn’t enough to declare the team open to feedback, we have to be proactive and democratic in seeking that feedback, to demonstrate that all voices are entitled to be heard. Psychological safety may feel like an intangible concept, but just as the environment can be shaped to create it, its effect on the team can be measured too. The Belbin process integrates feedback from the whole team, by way of Observer Assessments, which converts colleagues’ observations of someone’s behaviours into Team Roles. Whilst ensuring that feedback is always constructive and helpful, this pinpoints any discrepancies between individual and team perceptions, so that these can be openly addressed.
An iterative process. It isn’t enough simply to ‘do Belbin’ and hope for the best. A team’s psychological safety is not static, not a goal that can be ‘achieved’. Rather like a cholesterol check, the team’s behaviours should be measured frequently, and revisited when concerns are raised. whenever there are significant changes within the team, or if the desired performance metrics aren’t being reached. Belbin is the start of the discussion, not the end-point. Acknowledging the importance of regular ‘check-ins’ at all levels—and acting on the findings—will help to embed the idea that fostering a safe team culture is of importance to the business, rather than just a tick-box exercise.