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Building Psychological Safety: A Journey of Continuous Learning and Adaptation with Tom Geraghty

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In the world of leadership, achieving psychological safety within teams is not just an aspiration; it’s a necessity for achieving success. Tom Geraghty, the founder of Iterum Ltd and, shared his journey from ecological research to technology leadership and his passion for creating the conditions in which teams can thrive through psychological safety.

Psychological safety isn’t the ultimate objective; it’s a crucial factor in creating an environment where organizations can reach their goals. So, how can you tell if you’re fostering psychological safety within your team? Tom provides some insightful indicators:

  • Openness to Seeking Help: In a psychologically safe environment, team members feel comfortable asking for assistance when needed. It’s a sign that they trust their colleagues and leaders.
  • Admitting Mistakes: When team members are willing to admit their mistakes without fear of repercussions, it’s a positive sign of psychological safety. This transparency allows for learning and improvement.
  • Challenging the Status Quo: Teams in a psychologically safe space often challenge existing processes and suggest improvements. They feel safe to question and innovate.
  • Suggesting Unformed Ideas: Encouraging unpolished or incomplete ideas is another indicator of psychological safety. It shows that team members aren’t afraid to share their thoughts, even if they’re not fully developed.

Tom emphasizes the importance of unlearning some traditional management concepts, like the “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” mindset. While this phrase is well-intentioned, it can discourage team members from sharing problems if they can’t propose perfect solutions. It’s essential to create an environment where challenges and incomplete ideas are welcome.

The Journey of Psychological Safety: Continuous Commitment and Growth

Psychological safety is inherently linked to the iterative and dynamic nature of work. Just as teams iterate on projects to achieve better results, psychological safety requires an ongoing process of creating the right conditions. It’s about encouraging team members to bring forth half-baked ideas, incomplete solutions, and even problems that aren’t fully defined. This openness paves the way for learning and improvement.

Leaders need to become comfortable with discomfort. Tom highlights that, in many cases, leaders may have worked in environments where they achieved high performance but lacked honest feedback and open discussions. To build psychological safety, leaders must be open to their own vulnerabilities, be willing to be challenged, and acknowledge that discomfort can lead to growth and improvement.

To Tom, success in the realm of psychological safety isn’t a destination; it’s a commitment to continuous improvement. There’s no point at which you can declare, “We’ve achieved it, and we’re done.” Instead, it’s a journey of reflection, learning, and adaptation. It’s about embracing an environment where team members feel safe to challenge the status quo, question existing processes, and provide candid feedback.

As a leader, you’ll sense those moments when psychological safety is at its peak. These are the times when teams are humming, and collaboration is seamless. However, it’s crucial not to rest on your laurels during these moments but to use them as opportunities for even greater growth. These moments provide a platform for maximum learning potential, where uncomfortable truths and challenges can lead to significant leaps forward.

Psychological safety isn’t a one-size-fits-all concept with a clearly defined endpoint. Instead, it’s an ongoing commitment to creating the right conditions for teams to thrive and innovate. Success in this context is about recognizing those moments of peak performance, using them as catalysts for improvement, and understanding that the journey towards psychological safety is a dynamic and continuous one.

Navigating Challenges on the Path to Psychological Safety: Embracing Adversity and Growth

Tom delves into the challenges faced by leaders and organizations in cultivating psychological safety. While it may be challenging to articulate the essence of psychological safety, it’s crucial to acknowledge its significance and impact on our professional journeys. Success is the result of continuous commitment, while adversity presents opportunities for growth. 

Success is the Holy Grail of leadership, but it’s essential to recognize that psychological safety isn’t a destination; it’s an ongoing commitment. Just as teams iterate to achieve better results, creating the right conditions for psychological safety is an iterative process. It involves encouraging team members to voice half-baked ideas, incomplete solutions, or even undefined problems. This openness fosters learning and continuous improvement.

However, the path to psychological safety isn’t always smooth. Leaders and teams often encounter resistance and pushback. Some may question the validity or necessity of psychological safety. Others may believe that individuals should simply have the courage to speak up. Yet, history has shown that the absence of psychological safety can be so powerful that even in life-or-death situations, people may remain silent.

This highlights the need to create conditions where individuals feel safe to speak up, ask questions, and challenge the status quo. Leaders must navigate a complex landscape of incentives, reward structures, and external pressures. Recognizing that these factors influence behaviour is essential in fostering psychological safety.

Leaders facing adversity, torn between their fiduciary responsibilities and their commitment to their teams, need support. They must navigate these competing interests with empathy and kindness, recognizing that no one operates in a vacuum. Leadership is omnidirectional, extending upwards, downwards, and across the organizational hierarchy.

Failure is an integral part of the journey towards psychological safety. It’s a testament to the commitment to learning and growing as a leader and as an organization. Leaders must embrace failure as an opportunity for growth, using it as a catalyst for positive change.

Building a Bridge to Psychological Safety: Tailoring Strategies for Success

Navigating the treacherous waters of a dispassionate and unempathetic organizational culture can feel like a daunting nightmare for leaders. When empathy is absent, and failure is rampant, it’s time to sow the seeds of change and turn the ship around. But how can you achieve this monumental task? Let’s explore some tips and tricks that can help you and your organization transform adversity into success.

Firstly, it’s crucial to understand that every organization, while unique in its own way, shares common goals and challenges. Picture organizations as sitting on a spectrum, with established, successful entities at one end and innovative, experimenting startups at the other. Psychological safety is the bedrock upon which both types of organizations stand.

For established organizations, psychological safety serves as a shield against catastrophes. It enables the prevention and mitigation of mistakes by encouraging open communication and error reporting. In contrast, startups and innovators thrive on psychological safety to foster an environment of experimentation, where incomplete ideas and uncharted territories are explored freely.

The key lies in tailoring the message and approach to your organization’s position on this spectrum. Understand the tacit goals and priorities of your organization. If you’re in a traditional setting, emphasizing the importance of minimizing risks and ensuring stability will resonate. Conversely, in a startup or innovation-driven environment, promote the value of failing fast, iterating, and rapid learning.

Psychological safety acts as the bridge between these two ends of the spectrum. While the foundational principles remain constant, the practices, mechanisms, and implementation strategies may differ significantly. It’s essential to align your organization’s goals with the right message and approach to foster a culture of empathy and resilience.

The Relay Race of Organizational Success

Imagine an organization as a relay race, with the baton representing value. Just as Olympic gold medals can be won or lost in the baton handoff, organizations can thrive or falter at the points where value is handed from one team or department to another. This is where psychological safety plays a pivotal role. Without it, valuable information and context are lost, potentially leading to catastrophic consequences, especially in domains like healthcare.

The concept of value streaming, so popular in the tech world, applies universally. Whether you’re in a corporate boardroom or on the front lines of a startup, the flow of value to the customer is a shared objective. But it’s psychological safety that serves as the foundation for this flow. It enables teams to raise concerns, share insights, and prevent the loss of critical information in the handoff process.

However, achieving and maintaining psychological safety isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. Transforming an organization’s culture and practices takes time, typically three to five years, before the critical mass of change is reached. The key is perseverance, but not in the sense of repeating the same actions blindly. It’s about continuous adaptation, improvement, and learning from the journey.

The secret to staying passionate and enthusiastic throughout this transformational marathon lies in embracing geekiness about the subject matter. It’s about being genuinely curious and excited about the possibilities. Passion alone isn’t enough; it’s the commitment to continuous improvement and adaptation that keeps the fire burning.

In the end, it’s not just about persevering; it’s about adapting, learning, and evolving along the way. In the world of digital transformation, the journey is as crucial as the destination. So, whether you’re a leader at the helm or a team member in the trenches, remember that psychological safety is the bridge to success, and continuous adaptation is the key to lasting transformation.

Nurturing Psychological Safety: Essential Insights for Leaders

Psychological safety is indispensable for leadership and organizational success. Whether you’re a seasoned executive or an emerging leader, recognizing the following will help you navigate the complex terrain of transformation and leadership effectively:

  1. Beware of Unintended Consequences: Tom highlighted a cautionary tale from a tech leader who had implemented a seemingly harmless practice of measuring individual performance by tracking completed tasks. While the initial results looked promising, a closer examination revealed that this approach unintentionally encouraged team members to focus on low-hanging fruit and smaller tasks rather than tackling more complex, high-impact challenges. This emphasizes the need for leaders to be mindful of the unintended consequences of their actions.
  2. Team vs. Individual Performance: The story prompted a thought-provoking comparison between the presentation of sports teams today and in the past. The shift from emphasizing individual players to celebrating the entire team’s success illustrates the importance of recognizing collective achievements over individual contributions. This mainly focuses around rewarding behaviors that help others in a team, especially if helping the team leads to the detriment of the person helping (ie, they slip behind on a task), as it reinforces the idea that being able to help the team gets bigger wins and is more important than the small individual wins. This team-centered behavior is the “glue” in an organization structure. It’s a powerful reminder of how psychological safety can influence behaviors and outcomes within an organization.
  1. Weak Signals and Subtle Nudges: The concept of “weak signals” is a way to identify subtle signs of failure or cultural shifts.  Weak signals on their own may appear irrelevant or insignificant, but can actually signal much larger issues lurking – so creating the conditions and capabilities to detect and act on weak signals is key to success: and this requires psychological safety. 
  1. Psychological Safety at the Executive Level: Tom delved into the unique challenges faced by C-level executives and senior leadership teams. Contrary to common assumptions, these individuals are not immune to psychological safety concerns. Competitive dynamics, personal ambitions, and the pressure to deliver results can create an environment where psychological safety is lacking. The solution often involves seeking coaching and mentorship to help leaders navigate these complex waters.
  1. Creating Your Psychological Safety Network: The key takeaway for leaders, whether they are at the top of the hierarchy or aspiring to lead, is the importance of proactively creating a psychological safety network. If your organization doesn’t provide this environment, you can build it for yourself. Seek out trusted advisors, coaches, and mentors who can provide guidance, offer a safe space for discussions, and help frame challenges in more constructive ways.
  2. The Role of Trust and Vulnerability: Trust and vulnerability are pivotal factors of psychological safety. Trust helps to create an environment where team members feel secure in sharing their thoughts and ideas. Vulnerability means being open and honest about one’s mistakes, fears, and uncertainties.
  1. Kryptonite of Psychological Safety: To truly understand the value of psychological safety, it’s essential to identify its “kryptonite” – the factors that can undermine it. One key factor is public criticism. When individuals are publicly chastised or humiliated for their mistakes, it erodes their willingness to speak up or take risks. Encouraging a culture where errors are openly discussed and learning is emphasized helps counteract this kryptonite.
  1. Fostering Psychological Safety: Creating a culture of psychological safety is a team effort. Leaders play a vital role in modeling the desired behavior. They can admit mistakes, show vulnerability, ask for help, and suggest ideas, even when imperfect or unfinished. This sets the tone for the entire organization. The aim is to pretend that psychological safety already exists, and this practice can be particularly impactful when those with privilege, such as leaders, demonstrate these behaviors.
  1. The Power of Learning from Mistakes: Mistakes are seen as a chance for growth and improvement, not as grounds for punishment. Encouraging team members to share their mistakes and the lessons learned from them can create a culture of continuous improvement and resilience.
  1. Celebrating Mistakes: An interesting example from a company was discussed, where they had a “Mistake of the Month” parking spot for employees who had made errors that led to valuable lessons. Instead of shaming individuals, they celebrated their willingness to admit their mistakes and learn from them. This approach encouraged open communication and the sharing of valuable insights.
  1. Sharing the Learning: Tom highlighted the importance of sharing learning across the organization. When someone is recognized for their mistake or the lessons they’ve learned, it’s a catalyst for change and improvement. Encouraging discussions about what led to the mistake and how it can be prevented in the future helps in spreading valuable knowledge.

In conclusion, psychological safety is a cornerstone of effective leadership and a thriving organizational culture. It hinges on trust, vulnerability, and a culture of learning from mistakes. By identifying and addressing the kryptonite of psychological safety, and by celebrating and sharing the learning that comes from errors, organizations can create an environment where individuals feel empowered to innovate, collaborate, and contribute their best. Remember, a culture of psychological safety is built one open conversation at a time, where sharing truly becomes caring for the growth of the team and the organization as a whole.

Enhancing Psychological Safety Through Transparency and Structured Documentation

Tom stressed the profound connection between psychological safety and predictability. Central to this concept was the idea that establishing an environment where individuals can anticipate the outcomes of interpersonal interactions and communications fosters psychological safety, ultimately bolstering team performance.

A notable recommendation emerged – the utilization of personal user manuals. Irrespective of their status as seasoned leaders or those in a state of transition, these documents serve as personalized “read me” guides. They offer a glimpse into an individual’s preferred work methods, strengths, areas of growth, and more. The act of sharing these manuals among team members facilitates a deeper comprehension of one another’s work styles.

Taking this a step further, leaders can fashion manager manuals. These documents delve into leadership styles, daily routines, practices, habits, and expectations. They serve as an invaluable resource for team members seeking to grasp how their manager operates and how they can collaborate more effectively.

On a broader scale, team charters come into play. These comprehensive documents encapsulate team norms, behaviors, expectations, and objectives. Team charters outline what holds significance within the team, delineate roles and responsibilities, establish key metrics, and outline interactions with other teams. Crafting a team charter serves both as an enlightening journey of discovery and a potent instrument for enhancing psychological safety and overall team performance.

What truly distinguishes these practices is their tangibility. Personal user manuals, manager manuals, and team charters are not abstract concepts; they are living, evolving documents that empower teams to operate cohesively. They provide a structured framework for individuals and teams to engage effectively.

As the discussion drew to a close, a prevailing piece of wisdom emerged: “Everything is an experiment.” This mantra resonates profoundly with aspiring leaders. It encourages a mindset shift, where work is perceived as a series of experiments. Such an outlook fosters continuous learning, adaptation, and an unwavering commitment to improvement. The only experiment that fails is the one we didn’t learn from.

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