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Many years ago, I was recruiting a young leader to be part of our company. To give her a better sense of the work we did and how our team operated, I invited her to attend our annual client conference. At the end of each day of the conference, she joined our team huddles where we discussed what went well that day, what could’ve been better, and our priorities for the next day. Following the 3-day conference, she accepted our offer to come on board.

Of course, I was thrilled she wanted to join us, but also curious about what finally made her say yes. Her answer really stuck with me: “I watched how you interacted with the team during the nightly huddles. You listened to all team members and even encouraged the college intern to disagree with you, so I knew this was a company where everyone’s voice mattered.”

Years later, I can now identify what was so important to her – our company perpetuated psychological safety. A psychologically safe environment is one where team members can be open, feeling supported and secure in interactions with their leaders and peers. Team members know their manager will have their back. They can operate in freedom because they are not scared of what will happen if someone disagrees with what they have to say.

Besides the fact that psych safety makes the work experience more enjoyable, why should executives and managers care? Because Ecsell Institute has empirical evidence that psychological safety leads to more effective communication, better employee retention, and increased team performance.

Based on our research (which comes from one of the largest datasets in the world that currently exists on this topic), psych safety correlates directly with team efficiency and managerial effectiveness. Managers who rate a 9 or a 10 on a 10-point scale for overall performance have an average psych safety score of 84%. Those who score at a 6 for overall performance conversely have an average psych safety rating of 36%.

Most telling of all, psych safety makes a difference to a company’s bottom line. Managers with higher coaching scores in areas like psych safety lead teams that bring in an average of $4.3 million more in revenue per year.

The best way to describe psych safety is through examples of workplaces where it doesn’t exist. Years ago, I accepted a role as senior VP of business development at a publicly traded company. Soon after my promotion I attended a retreat with the CEO, president and eight other executives. During one meeting, one of my colleagues began to thoughtfully and respectfully ask whether the ideas put forward were the best solutions. The CEO exploded. Yelling and cursing, he told the employee he would take his salary and do the job for him.

That interaction taught me to keep my distance from the CEO. I avoided him at every opportunity. I only spoke with him when approached. You can bet I was very careful about expressing any dissent.

In this experience, the psychologically unsafe environment was created. But sometimes it exists simply because it’s allowed to exist. Most often it’s born from the subtle things we do or say: body language, passive aggressive comments, comments about people who aren’t in the room and asking too many questions that begin with “why.”

The good news is work experience and generational differences do not impact psych safety scores, according to our data. Neither does the size of a team. It does not matter whether a manager has one direct report or 10. That means managers have a great deal of power to create a psychologically safe environment for their teams.

There are four things supported by our research that managers can do to increase psych safety:

  1. Encourage unique opinions. Publicly praise team members who bring different perspectives to the table. It also doesn’t hurt to wait to share your opinion until after your team members have shared theirs in a brainstorm or group meeting.
  2. Avoid micromanagement. Delegate to people who have the talent to succeed at the task and let them have ownership of the work. Always pause before giving critical feedback and, ask yourself, “Is their way wrong or just different than mine?”
  3. Support smart risk-taking. Bias toward the status quo can keep you from realizing the rewards of smart risks. Tell people you have their backs if they fail. If deciding between a new way and an old way, have new-idea bias. When someone on your team brings a new idea, try to first looking for reasons why it will succeed rather than rushing to the reasons why it won’t.
  4. Move quickly past mistakes. Address mistakes in a way that focus on preventing future mistakes, rather than assigning blame. It can be powerful to share your mistakes openly to show others how to work through theirs.

Adopting these small habits can lead to big changes in psych safety that positively impact communication, retention and business growth. As Herb Kelleher, the co-founder of Southwest Airlines put it: “A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear.”

Want to know more about psych safety and the impact it has on your company? Join us at the next Coaching Effect Academy.

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