Psychological safety is an enabling condition for effective teamwork Conversational capacity is an enabling competence for creating it.
The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.
— Robert Pirsig
There is an increasing focus on the issue of psychological safety in the workplace. This is good. It’s a vital factor in building effective teams, projects, and organizations. People often ask me about the connections between conversational capacity and psychological safety, so in this short article I’ll outline a few of my thoughts on the issue. My goal is to expand both how we think about psychological safety, and more importantly, to provide practical suggestions for how to create it. In doing so, I’ll demonstrate that conversational capacity is a missing piece of the puzzle in creating more engaged, productive, and psychologically safe workplaces.
WHAT IS PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY?
Amy Edmondson, a professor at the Harvard Business School, studied the connection between teamwork and mistakes in hospitals. As she began her research, her working assumption was that higher performing teams would make fewer mistakes. But what she found surprised her. Higher performing teams actually reported more errors, not less.
The key word is “reported.” Edmondson realized that the best teams reported higher error rates not because their performance was lower, but because people spoke up when an error was made. In these teams, error was viewed as an opportunity to learn and improve, not a cause for blame or embarrassment. “That forced me to think,” she says. “Maybe better teams don’t make more mistakes. Maybe they’re more willing and able to talk about them.” [i] Her subsequent research backed this up. People on high performance teams – no matter their role or rank – were more capable of speaking up, raising their concerns, pointing out problems, and exercising influence.
Edmondson’s ongoing research calls attention to a decisive factor in teams and teamwork: “psychological safety” – a term first coined in 1965 by Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis.[ii] Edmondson, who has now made the concept famous, describes psychological safety as “an interpersonal climate in which all employees feel empowered to speak up will lead to fewer errors and better performing teams.” [iii] In a team with high psychological safety, there is “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” [iv]
“Psychological safety, or the belief that one will not be rejected or humiliated in a particular setting or role, describes a climate in which people feel free to express work-relevant thoughts and feelings. In psychologically safe environments, people believe that if they make a well-intentioned mistake, others will not think less of them for it, nor will they resent or penalize them for asking for help, information or feedback. Psychological safety thus fosters the confidence to take interpersonal risks, allowing oneself and one’s colleagues to learn and focus on collective goals and problem prevention rather than on self-protection.”[v]
HOW DO YOU CREATE IT?
Now, after years of research and a growing focus on its importance, the biggest challenge with psychological safety isn’t explaining it – it’s creating it. You can’t espouse it into existence. You can’t mandate it. You can’t order it online and have it delivered. You can’t hire someone to install it for you. You have to build it. A psychologically safe environment comes from people who have the ability to generate that environment.
The core competence for doing this in a rigorous, skill-based way is something I refer to as conversational capacity.
WHAT IS CONVERSATIONAL CAPACITY?
Conversational capacity is the ability – of an individual or a team – to engage in constructive, learning-focused dialogue about difficult subjects, in challenging circumstances, and across tough boundaries. It’s a pivotal competence for both personal and collective performance:
- Personal performance: A person with high conversational capacity makes every conversation or meeting smarter because they’re in the room. A person with low conversational capacity – even if they have high intelligence and good intentions – often has the opposite effect.
- Collective performance: A team with high conversational capacity can perform well, remaining on track even when dealing with their most troublesome issues. The performance of a team with low capacity, by contrast, can be derailed by a trivial disagreement. In this sense, conversational capacity isn’t just another aspect of effective teamwork – it defines it. A team that can’t communicate about its most pressing issues isn’t really a team at all. It’s just a group of people who can’t work with each other effectively when it counts.
THE SWEET SPOT
You can measure the conversational capacity of an individual or a team by the ability to converse in the “sweet spot” under pressure. The sweet spot is that place in a conversation or meeting where candor and courage are balanced with curiosity and humility. This is a good place to work. Candor and courage are high, so people are honest, open, forthright, and direct. But at the same time, they’re curious and humble, so they’re open-minded, intellectually vulnerable, and eager to learn. When we’re in the sweet spot, we have the ability to raise our hands and speak up, and the ability to listen and learn from others, even in circumstances that don’t make it easy.
IT’S NOT ON OUR DASHBOARDS
Despite its foundational importance to running meetings, making decisions, giving feedback, implementing strategy, orchestrating change, and increasing psychological safety, it’s absent from most management dashboards, and it’s lacking from many team, organizational, and leadership development plans. There are two primary reasons for this oversight:
- Up to now, we lacked a clear label for it. Without a clear distinction for the concept, conversational capacity is often described by the symptoms of its absence; lack of trust, dysfunctional teamwork, poor engagement, interpersonal conflict, organizational defensiveness, or low psychological safety.
- We lacked a rigorous approach to building it.
IT’S A DISCIPLINE
Conversational capacity – the ability to converse in the sweet spot in circumstances that conspire against it – is a discipline that borrows from research in cognitive neuroscience, human factors, emotional intelligence, mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy, leadership studies, and management science. So how do we build this discipline? There are three domains of practice: awareness, mindset, and skill set.
Cultivating self-awareness, which the psychologist Tasha Eurich calls “the meta-skill of the twenty-first century,” is the first step. Learning to maintain a candid and curious stance requires a clear understanding of how our defensive emotional programming works against it. We’ve all inherited two powerful tendencies that throw us off balance in difficult moments. When one of these tendencies is triggered we let go of our candor and courage and become overly guarded and cautious. When the other is triggered we let go of our curiosity and humility and grow more arrogant and argumentative. To stay in the sweet spot in pressing situations we must learn to recognize these defensive reactions and then build our capacity to act more intentionally despite them.
Increasing our awareness is just the start. We must next adopt a mindset that places the goals of thinking more clearly and making smart choices above being comfortable or feeling “right.” Put differently, we must learn to subordinate our defensive emotional programming to the goal of learning.
But a mindset is only as useful as our ability to put it into action. So the discipline includes a skill set – specific, well-defined behaviors – for conversing in a balanced way under pressure.
This discipline breathes life into every activity that depends on effective communication for its effectiveness. So, just as we rate a truck’s capacity for carrying a load, or a factory’s capacity for production, we should also pay attention to a team’s capacity for dealing with their challenges. If a team’s conversational capacity is too weak given the issues it’s facing, it is, by definition, dysfunctional.
CONVERSATIONAL CAPACITY AND PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY
An idea is only as good as your ability to put it to work. And if psychological safety is the what, building your conversational capacity is the how. Looking at psychological safety through the lens of conversational capacity provides a unique perspective. When viewed from this vantage point, several things become clear:
It’s a Climate Created by a Competence
A climate of psychological safety is created by a conversational competence. A team with high capacity can address their most challenging, divisive, threatening issues in a constructive way. With a mindset focused on learning – and the skills to back it up – people approach mistakes differently. As my friend Frank Barrett says in his book, Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, they treat errors “not as high crimes and misdemeanors but as essential learning opportunities”[vi]
Paradoxically, a team with high conversational capacity enjoys far higher psychological safety because people have the ability to engage in conversations that balance candor and courage with curiosity and humility even in circumstances that don’t feel safe.
It’s An Outcome
Psychological safety – the shared belief that the environment is safe for risk-taking – is usually described as an important contextual factor, a feature of the climate, as an antecedent for effective teamwork. It’s described in Wikipedia, for example, as “the most studied enabling condition in group dynamics and team learning research.” [Emphasis mine] [vii]
But it’s more helpful – more actionable – to look at psychological safety not as a prerequisite for good teamwork, but as the product of high conversational capacity. It’s a contextual factor generated by a personal and organizational competence. It’s the outcome of robust communication and teamwork, not a precondition for it.
As I said earlier, we can’t just espouse a safe environment into existence. We can’t legislate it, fake it, buy it, or hire a firm to install it for us. If we want psychological safety we have to build it. So the question we should be asking is this: “How do we improve how we communicate and work together so we create a safer environment with every meeting, decision, conflict, and change?” The answer? Strengthen your ability to work together in a more candid and curious, courageous yet humble, learning-focused and purpose-driven way.
It’s Both a Collective and a Personal Competence
If psychological safety is an enabling condition for effective teamwork, conversational capacity is the enabling competence.
Collective: People on a team that treats dialogue as a discipline are better equipped to speak up about tough issues and in challenging situations because the team has established behavioral norms. With a clear-cut conversational culture, everyone is on the same page about what they’re working together to achieve and how they’ll work together to achieve it. Team members are more confident in their ability to work together effectively when it counts because they have a proven ability to work in the sweet spot under pressure.
This ability doesn’t make their problems disappear. It doesn’t eliminate conflicts, tough decisions, personality differences, and contrasting points of view. It simply means that when faced with a problem they’re able to turn their differences into performance rather than dysfunction; learning rather than defensiveness; a strength rather than a weakness.
With collective behavior driven by purpose and learning rather than ego and defensiveness, a team with high conversational capacity is more agile and engaged, and enjoys higher levels of trust, respect, and psychological safety. In a team that can balance candor and curiosity under pressure, executives work together in a way that supports their strategy, copilots and nurses speak up when they see a mistake, and even the newest or most introverted member of a team raises their hand when they have a concern or an idea.
Personal: Psychological safety that comes solely from your context is psychological dependence. If context gives you your sense of safety, then context can take it away. And if changes in the environment can make your safety evaporate, that dependence, and the unpredictability it creates, will also make you feel less safe.
So if we can’t depend entirely on context, we need the “Do-It-Yourself Psychological Safety” (DIY-PS) that personal conversational capacity provides. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig makes this observation: “The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.” That’s often the same with tough situations and psychological safety. With high conversational capacity, we’re not dependent on context for our effectiveness. Like an astronaut on a spacewalk, we bring our climate with us. Forced to operate in an unsafe environment, astronauts suit up and take a safe environment with them. A person with high conversational capacity does the same thing. They’re not dependent on the external environment for their psychological safety – they take it with them. They’re able to perform effectively even in an environment that doesn’t feel safe.
When we’re confident we can walk into a challenging, high-pressure situation and handle it in a competent and constructive way, we enjoy more DIY-PS. This is why conversational capacity is so important for personal effectiveness – it provides you a degree of confidence unavailable to less disciplined people. Knowing we can handle a tough situation in a competent way – no matter what it throws at us – gives us a stronger sense of safety because it’s less about what we’re walking into and more about what we’re bringing in with us.
To paraphrase Robert Pirsig, the only real psychological safety you find in a conversation is the psychological safety you bring with you. (Anyone with experience in customer service knows this well. The only sense of safety in a conversation with a furious customer is DIY-PS.)
The only real psychological safety you find in a conversation is the psychological safety you bring with you
It’s a Two-Way Street
Creating a climate of psychological safety is primarily the responsibility of management, but that doesn’t mean that management has to do all the work. Everyone has a role to play. Conversational capacity, and the psychological safety it generates, is most robust when it is a two-way street, that is, when it’s being promoted both from the top down and from the bottom up.
The most failsafe environments are created when both managers and team members are all acting in a way that increases their collective ability to work in the sweet spot under pressure. Managers do this by wielding their authority in a way that lifts the conversational capacity of their people and teams, and individuals have the capacity to speak up and remain engaged even when management (or a colleague, customer, or client) isn’t making it easy.
In my books and workshops I provide a range of examples of people using the conversational capacity discipline, and the contextual and DIY psychological safety it creates, to take responsibility for addressing a tough issue or situation. I’ll share four of them here – two that illustrate DIY psychological safety and two in which an authority figure creates more psychologically safe conditions for their team:
In my first book, Conversational Capacity, I share the story of a 6th grade teacher at a public school conversing with a couple of angry parents who are upset by their daughter’s grades. The teacher, skilled in the conversational capacity discipline, is able to respond to them in a way that pulls everyone back to the sweet spot, focused on what matters: working together to help a young student thrive in the classroom.
The teacher did not depend on the environment for his psychological safety. He couldn’t. There wasn’t any. The only psychological safety in the room was the psychological safety he took with him. Able to respond to whatever the situation threw in his way in a balanced, constructive, learning-focused manner, he felt more confident he could influence the conversations in a productive direction. It was his conversational capacity that provided a degree of safety. In this situation psychological safety was a personal rather than a contextual variable.
The Case of Steve
In my second book, Influence in Action, I share the case of Steve, a manager who decided to talk with his boss about a seeming gap between what his boss claimed to value and how he actually behaved. The boss seemed unaware of the disconnect – he wasn’t doing it intentionally – but it was having a corrosive effect on team and business performance.
Steve decided to address this issue despite the strong objections of his teammates, who said it would be extremely risky and foolhardy. One of them said it would be “career suicide.” His colleagues argued that Steve would become a victim of the very problem he was trying to solve.
But, despite these risks, Steve mustered the courage to address the challenge even though his colleagues warned him against it. To prepare for the intervention he enlisted two partners – fellow members of his team – to help him gear up for the conversation. They helped him put together a conversational gameplan, role-played with him to practice, and even called him the night before to provide last-minute support. Steve enrolled his partners to help him do the personal work necessary to help him stay in the sweet spot in a high-stakes conversation.
Steve then initiated a conversation that sparked a surprising and powerful lesson, not just for his boss, but also for Steve and the team. He was able to raise the issue and address it in a way that helped his boss recognize his own behavior was counterproductive, but also helped the team recognize they were contributing to the problem by behaving in ways that often triggered the very reactions from their boss they complained about.
Steve was not in a safe environment for the conversation. The opposite was true. The purpose of the conversation was to address how his boss’s behavior was creating an unsafe environment. Again, like an astronaut, Steve had to take his safe environment with him. He did this by using the conversational capacity discipline to plan for the conversation and to practice with partners.
CREATING SAFER CONDITIONS
But as I mentioned previously, it’s a two-way street. Yes, we need individuals who can speak up and contribute even in circumstances that don’t feel safe, but we also need people in positions of authority working hard to create safer conditions. The examples of the teacher and Steve illustrate one lane of this two-way street. Here are two examples coming from the other direction:
The Strategy Offsite
After attending one of my workshops, an executive used the conversational capacity discipline to improve the engagement level of his team at an important strategy offsite. He shared a big new idea – a dramatic expansion of their current business model – and after spending time describing the idea and its rationale, he turned to his team and said this:
“You know me. I love to argue and I have a strong need to be right. As your boss, that means not only have I not made it easy for you to challenge me in meetings up to now, I’ve actually done just the opposite: I’ve made it very difficult to challenge me. That’s my bad, and I promise you I’m working on it. But this decision is extremely important and I desperately need your full input if I want to make the most intelligent choice. So let’s do this: break into pairs for fifteen minutes and come up with two things you like about what I’m suggesting, and then, more importantly, two things you don’t. Then we’ll go around and hear what each pair comes up with.”
I love three things about this intervention. First, I appreciate the executive’s vulnerable acknowledgement of his past behavior. He admits to his role in lowering the conversational capacity and psychological safety of the team. Second, I love that he split the group into pairs. There is more safety exploring the new strategic idea in pairs, and there is more safety in sharing the feedback from a pair. Third, I love his emphasis on the negative: “One thing you like, two things you don’t.” That sends a strong message about the authenticity of the executive’s intentions and mindset.
What effect did this have? The team reported it was the most open and productive meeting they’d ever experienced, and the offsite – along with the executive’s continued shift in behavior – formed the basis for a more balanced and safe conversational culture in the team.
The Smart CEO
A few years back I conducted a workshop for a group of CEOs from the San Francisco bay area. One attendee, the CEO of a boutique engineering firm in Silicon Valley shared this observation at the end of the session: “At the beginning of the workshop you said ‘Why go to all the trouble of hiring smart people if you can’t access their smarts when it counts?’ I’ll be honest, that really stung. I have a brilliant group of engineers on my team and yet my meetings are little more than me just holding court. The engagement level in those meetings is so low. I’m doing a miserable job of using all the smarts of my team.”
Full of enthusiasm, he went back to his business and tried one of the curiosity skills he’d learned in the workshop – testing your own perspective by encouraging people to help you improve it. But it failed to create the improvement he intended.
“It didn’t work,” he told me. “All I heard was crickets chirping. I was severely disappointed.”
“So what did you do?” I asked.
“Well, my COO also attended one of your workshops, so he understood what I was trying to do. So I invited him into my office and asked him why it wasn’t working.”
The COO mustered his candor and courage, took a risk, and provided this feedback: “I think there are three reasons you’re unlikely to get any feedback from your engineers,” he said. “First, your name is on the building – you own the company. Second, you’re extremely intelligent, especially in our engineering space. So going up against you on a technical issue is always intimidating. And three, and this is the big one; you have a need to always ‘win’ a conversation. You hate to be wrong. Any one of these would make it hard for your team to engage with you. When you bundle them together it should be no surprise your engineers are reluctant to open up. That’s my view of the predicament; feel free to disagree with me.”
The CEO later told me, “That is the harshest feedback I have ever received. It kept me awake at night.”
To the CEO’s credit, he didn’t waste the feedback; he treated it like a gift and acted on it.
“I realized that if I wanted this to work I was going to need to use training wheels,” he said.
At his next staff meeting the CEO brought a big decision to his engineering team. He explained what he considered the best choice, and provided an overview of his reasoning. He then said, “Before I make this decision I want to get a lot of input from this team. To help you give it to me, I’m going to leave the room for 30 minutes. When I come back in half an hour I’d like at least three concerns up on the board and we’ll work them through one at a time.” And he got up and left the room. He gave his engineers thirty minutes alone. He wasn’t allowing his presence to inhibit their candor. He got out of their way. Inviting the engineers to put their concerns on the board was a smart idea, too. It’s a safer way to deliver the feedback.
He then took an additional step. “The third thing I did,” he told me, “was when I came back into the meeting I didn’t sit in front of the room in the captain’s chair where I normally presided. I left the front of the room to my engineers and took a seat at the far corner of the table. I pulled out a pad of paper, smiled, and said, ‘So, what did you come up with?”
“How did it work out,” I asked.
“It was amazing. We had a great conversation. I asked a ton of questions. I took pages of notes. I was blown away at how much useful information I got out of that meeting – out of my team. I was hooked,” he said.
So the CEO made it a habit. Anytime he needed input from his engineers he’d get out of their way – literally. He’d leave the room so his presence wouldn’t block his team’s ability to provide the critical information he was seeking.
“I did this for several weeks, thrilled at how well it was working,” he said. “I started looking forward to those weekly engineering meetings in a way I never had before because I was getting so much more value out of them.”
Then something funny happened. One day he shared an idea, explained it, and said, “I’ll be back in 20 minutes.” But before he could get out of his seat, one of his senior engineers said, “Look, we talked about this as a team and you can stay if you want. You don’t have to leave the room.”
There’s the psychological safety. Once his engineers realized that not only would they not get into trouble if they raised a concern, or pushed back on their boss’s idea, but that he actually seemed to appreciate it – enjoy it even – suddenly it wasn’t such a risky thing to do.
Note that he didn’t just leave the room one time and all was well. He had to be consistent, and establish a pattern. His effort to get the feedback, and the way he responded when his engineers provided it, all combined to create a climate that was more psychologically safe, more constructive, more candid and curious. There was a flywheel effect, and it took a lot of effort to spin it up, but as he invested more and more energy he created an increasingly open, balanced, and learning-focused environment.
A climate of psychological safety is a vital part of effective work relationships, teams, projects, and organizations. To build it, we need people who aren’t just sitting around, waiting for the psychological safety to arrive; we need people who can create it. Conversational capacity is a multifaceted discipline that enables people to do just that.
The goal is to create a virtuous cycle in which higher conversational capacity produces greater psychological safety, and heightened psychological safety increases conversational capacity.
To sum up, here are a few bullet points that highlight the key takeaways about the relationship between psychological safety and conversational capacity:
- A climate of psychological safety is an enabling condition for effective teamwork and organizational performance.
- You can’t order psychological safety online and have it shipped to your office. You can’t legislate it, fake it, mandate it, or wish it into existence. You have to create it.
- It is more actionable to view psychological safety as an outcome rather than a precondition; as the product of how people interact with one another in the workplace. It is the result of, rather than a prerequisite for, good communication and teamwork.
- Generating good communication and teamwork does not happen by accident. It takes discipline. What discipline? The ability of an individual or a team to balance candor and courage with curiosity and humility under pressure.
- If psychological safety is an enabling condition, conversational capacity is an enabling competence. Building conversational capacity is a rigorous, skill-based way to create psychological safety.
- DIY-PS: While there is a sharp focus on the contextual aspects of psychological safety, there is far less attention on the personal aspects – personal conversational capacity and the DIY-PS it creates. The focus is on the need to create a safe environment, but not on the personal capacity of the people who need to create it. This is a significant gap. Reliable psychological safety is not context dependent – we can build our own and take it with us.
- Conversational capacity is both an individual and collective competence. But it starts with the individual. A team with high collective capacity (and therefore high psychological safety) is full of people investing in their personal capacity.
- It’s a two-way street. While management has the primary responsibility for creating a safe, healthy, vibrant workplace, individuals – no matter their role or their rank – can, and should, play a constructive role in the process.
If you’d like to learn more about conversational capacity, and how to build it, visit ConversationalCapacity.com, or https://www.kenblanchard.com/Solutions/Conversational-Capacity
[ii] Schein, Edgar H., and Warren Bennis. Personal and Organizational Change via Group Methods. New York: Wiley, 1965.
[iv] Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Author: Amy Edmondson. Source: Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Jun., 1999), pp. 350-383 Published by: Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2666999
[vi] Frank Barrett. Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012. Pg 51
This article was originally published on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/conversational-capacity-psychological-safety-craig-weber/