Improving Psychological Safety – “CBT for Teams”

Tip: Scroll to the bottom of this article for a special discount Bloomsbury arranged for the readers of this newspaper in preordering my upcoming book “People Before Tech: The Importance of Psychological Safety and Teamwork in the Digital Age”.

Psychological Safety may be elusive but it is also instinctively right and valuable and in a sense, sheer common sense. Who can dispute that bringing your whole self to work with no fear in a team that feels like family and is actually having fun and performing to the highest of their abilities is valuable? The beauty of Psychological Safety, as we said many a time before, is that there isn’t anyone we’ve ever met who has truly connected to the topic and yet it hasn’t resonated with them. Getting people to connect with it and feel entitled to work on it, is far from easy though. 

The barriers come from several sources. Firstly, as a function of the immense HumanDebt™ they have to contend with – if you spent your entire professional life expecting little if anything from the organisation, it’s almost impossible to believe you deserve careful consideration and good-willed measurements to make a difference for the better in your work life. The higher the HumanDebt the lesser the expectations of the employee when it comes to their wellbeing, it’s a pattern that closely mirrors abusive relationships and as the victims of that dynamic, team members learn to believe they don’t deserve better. 

Secondly, because most people have a hard time accepting that the time they were in a team that felt like magic can ever be the default. That it would become a permanent state of affairs seems too good to be true. They regard it as a happy accident where they had an extraordinary cultural fit of sorts and since it didn’t last -be it because the team composition changed, the project came to a natural end or because impression management started to seep in and undermine the foundation of Psychological Safety- they come to think of that blissful state as ephemeral. 

Lastly, it is because people don’t feel entitled or mandated to think of or talk about human topics at work where their image has to appear “professional” which they equate with unemotional and unpreoccupied with relationships – a type of impression management in itself. For years we have been conditioned to leave our humanity at the door when we enter the workplace – whether it is physical or a Zoom meeting- and never have we been encouraged to have the EQ or the soft skills to analyse our team dynamic and the way people around us feel. “Feelings” altogether have effectively become a taboo in the context of our work lives. 

So when we ask people to think back to a time when they were in a team that was running fast, doing well, making awesome things happen and did so with glee and an immense sense of authenticity and trust, they take a while to recall such a time and they are reluctant to firmly label it as “magic” and to recognise that was a team with a high degree of Psychological Safety in their team dynamic. 

Conscious of this conditioned cognitive barrier we at PeopleNotTech have learned we have to inbuild the equivalent of a comedic pause in our conversations with new teams, meaning we have to give each team member the space to bring back a memory of a time when they were part of such a team -whether it was last week or their last year of primary school- and we’ve learned to patiently wait for the moment of recognition when the recollection is truly visible on the faces of the team members, (and yes in case you were wondering that is truly evident even through video). 

There’s an unmissable look on their faces, a spark of “Oh yeah!” that says they connected to that time and that spark is what allows them to realise they would love to be in that fortunate position again because the joy of working in a Psychologically Safe -and implicitly high performing- team is undeniable. 

The next step is to learn that this blissful state isn’t accidental and it doesn’t have to be ephemeral as there are ways to continuously measure it and improve it through team-level interventions.

Don’t get me wrong, that “Aha!” moment isn’t the last bastion of resistance and we see many teams who start working with our Psychological Safety Dashboard who are starting out as closed off and reluctant as part of that same HumanDebt in the organisation where team members often have survey fatigue – chiefly caused by the futility of sterile surveys they are constantly subjected to-, are fearful of punitive consequences to their honesty or are simply dejected and defeated, but when they get over that initial reluctance and become engaged, they undergo what looks like a sudden miraculous transformation. They go from disengaged and hopeless to empowered and addicted to bettering their team dynamic and it is all because they can see direct effects of their own actions. 

It is indeed the same effect individuals derive from effective CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – a type of psychotherapy which focuses on educating the individual so they cultivate the ability to recognise, reframe and correct behaviour) – a sense of accomplishment in seeing a change that is beneficial. When teams see they can actually increase their Psychological Safety by encouraging the positive behaviours and learning to suppress the negative ones, they realise they are in control of their own team’s destiny and that is a powerful realisation that’s instinctively desirable and makes them autonomous and empowered in a way they had never had before. 

This is why, we some times refer to our PeopleNotTech Team Dashboard as “CBT for teams” because seeing the data on how the team is feeling is enlightening and puts solutions at the fingertips of every team member, bringing the power to build better, healthier and happier team dynamics to the team level from the HR/organisational level where they previously thought it lived and then distributes it equally between all team members when no particular person is in charge but the whole team works collectively to analyse the measurements, decide on and execute the next Team Action.

We built the Playbook -a crowdsourced collection of detailed step-by-step examples of team actions that have had positive effects on the Psychological Safety of other teams- so that it aids with that initial reluctance by offering direct strategies and tools,-no one needs a therapist diploma to lead any of those interventions- but the holy grail really and our hope, is that in time, the team will become so collectively EQed and so attuned to the most minute of changes in their dynamic, that they can come up with their own custom made interventions and then use our software to only measure their effect of these on the PS components.  

People go towards CBT when they are experiencing intense psychological discomfort, whether they are anxious, depressed or dealing with trauma or a phobia, but while we’re slowly coming around to changing attitudes around the need for psychological wellbeing in individuals, we remain stoically unexamined, ”un-served,” “un-heard” and “un-helped” at work where the dynamic of the team isn’t even a consideration and the intense psychological discomfort caused by this lack of consideration has become the norm. 

As a company, we work hard to eliminate a couple of confusions and misconceptions when it comes to Psychological Safety. Firstly that it is “nice to have” when there’s hard evidence it actually reflects in the bottom line. Secondly, that it is simply another name for trust when in fact it is a different type of team-level trust that includes a number of major other components. Lastly, we always strive to delimitate an individual sense of psychological comfort and- its relationship to mental health- and the concept of Psychological Safety in teams which is a group dynamic so I can only hope the above comparison in regards to CBT doesn’t muddle it and add to the confusion, but to be sure I’ll gladly repeat: one is personal and about mental health, the other is group level and about the wellbeing of the team and its healthy and productive dynamic. 

For those of you out there -clients or not yet clients- who are valiantly working to increase PS, remember the “aha” moment is fundamental, don’t cut corners when you are searching for it tempting as that may be. Then remember initial reluctance is absolutely normal but once those thresholds are passed, the team will simply get addicted to seeing the effects of their self-improvement work and start flying high shortly after so keep up the good work and be patient, after all, you’re undoing years worth of damage and paying back hefty amounts of HumanDebt. 

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The 3 “commandments of Psychological Safety” to build high performing teams are: UnderstandMeasure and Improve

Read more about our Team Dashboard that measures and improves Psychological Safety at www.peoplenottech.com or reach out at contact@peoplenottech.com and let’s help your teams become Psychologically Safe, healthy, happy and highly performant.

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