Reimagining Teamwork: Fostering a Culture of Psychological Safety

Jun 9, 2024 | Articles, Career Growth, Leadership

By Fawn Hutton

Have you ever hesitated to speak up regarding an idea or issue in the workplace? What conditions led to your hesitation? This article explains why such a phenomenon is common in healthcare settings. Psychological safety, the belief that one will not be retaliated against, humiliated, or shamed for speaking up regarding questions, concerns, ideas, or mistakes, impacts healthcare professionals on varied levels. It involves embracing a culture of transparency where teams can be open and honest about constructive feedback. Psychological safety necessitates active and attentive listening without fear of judgment, retaliation, or embarrassment, aspects that reduce morale and create a toxic work environment.   

Leaders, in particular, are tasked with cultivating a more respectful and collaborative workspace where open dialogue and diverse perspectives are valued. Fostering environments where people are encouraged to voice their ideas, opinions, and disagreements results in desired outcomes and the attainment of goals. When people are valued for speaking up, they are motivated to problem-solve and contribute to solutions with their team. It is pivotal that leaders develop their teams by acknowledging strengths and facilitating professional development that integrates essential components of psychological safety. According to Dr. Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth (2018), teams work more efficiently and effortlessly when psychological safety is valued by the organization. 

Innovations In Teamwork For Healthcare: Why it Matters

Harvard Business School offers a 6-week online course called Innovations in Teamwork for Health Care. The course, co-taught by Dr. Edmondson and Dr. Michaela Kerrissey, addresses the critical importance of psychological safety and how it contributes to high-performing teams. The course highlights innovative ways to improve work environments based on the tenets of psychological safety. Professors Edmondson and Kerrissey share seven components of leading with psychological safety: 

  1. Encouraging People to Speak Up
  2. Decreasing Feelings of Fear
  3. Supporting Productive Conflict
  4. Discussing Failures Constructively
  5. Allowing People to Express Their Ideas
  6. Motivating Groups and Enabling Cooperation
  7. Supporting Group Accountability

Course learnings also emphasized the detriments of unspoken rules in the workplace, such as not speaking out when administrators or supervisors are present. Another example includes navigating hierarchies between staff and senior leadership. If staff notice a discrepancy or error, they should not be afraid to bring it to the attention of a supervisor, senior leader, or provider. When the seven components of psychological safety are adhered to, tensions caused by hierarchies are minimized. 

Additional insight from the course includes a discussion on “micro-moments,” such as little to no eye contact, judgmental responses, or cutting someone off before they complete a sentence, severely diminishing psychological safety. Alternatively, when psychological safety is reinforced, culture and climate are improved. As clinical standards within healthcare systems advance and become more complex, it is vital for healthcare leaders to implement norms for psychological safety in the workplace. Teams are more cohesive when psychological safety is prioritized during meetings, conferences, huddles, retreats, performance evaluations, and stakeholder meetings. As a result, health systems experience less turnover and more employee satisfaction.  

According to Dr. Edmondson and Dr. Kerrissey, one way to assess psychological safety with your team is to conduct an anonymous poll using the following questions: 

  1. If I make a mistake on my team, is it held against me?
  2. Are members on my team able to bring up problems and tough issues?
  3. On my team, is it easy to ask for help?
  4. Is my team leader an ongoing “presence” – someone who is readily available? 
  5. Are my team members and I regularly taking time to figure out ways to improve work processes?
  6. Is there evidence that my team and I are responsive to feedback from others?
  7. Is my team getting better and better?

Psychological safety is liberating because people’s perspectives, ideas, and critiques are  welcomed, creating a brave space for teams to thrive. After taking this Harvard Online course, I embarked on a journey to better understand and apply the concepts of psychological safety in my work setting. I know I am a better leader because of it. Start your journey today!

Fawn Hutton, MBA, FACHE, CMPE, LBBP, brings 15 years of dedicated service to healthcare, including a wealth of knowledge and expertise as a transformative leader. A newly honored listee of Marquis Who’s Who, Fawn is committed to empowering professionals, administrators, and executives to maximize performance and thrive in the workplace. She is widely admired for her inclusive disposition and natural ability to foster trust and connection. Fawn is a team building extraordinaire who uses her “Connector” superpower to enhance team success.