In a presentation I gave to the members of a PMI Chapter on the topic of psychological safety, one of the attendees asked a great question. If a team possesses a high level of psychological safety, does this increase the likelihood that one of its members might feel safe taking a risk which goes beyond the risk tolerance of the team, the line of business or the organization as a whole?

Given the broader awareness of the importance of psychological safety over the past decade, it is understandable that there are going to be some misconceptions about it such as:

  • It is about prioritizing niceness above all else
  • It might encourage low performance
  • It could result in a free for all atmosphere where team members can say whatever they want, regardless of the impacts on others

Safety can’t increase by itself. A broader view needs to be taken to understand what other changes are needed to fully benefit from it.

We can draw a parallel to giving someone greater control over the work they do. Autonomy has many benefits, but unfettered autonomy might result in someone violating organizational policies, regulations or engaging in activities which improve their work but end up hurting other teams. Self-management only succeeds when there are guardrails in place to protect the individual and the system they work in.

Similarly, encouraging radical candor and empathy-based social pressure can establish similar guardrails which could reduce the likelihood of realizing the misconceptions I listed above.

And when it comes to taking risks, provide the team with a clear understanding of their organization’s risk appetite and help them to define the limits for different types of risks. Provide examples of what is and isn’t safe to do. Encourage team members to feel comfortable about challenging each other if they feel a proposed risk is too great. This guidance could then become part of the team’s working agreements.

“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”

(If you liked this article, why not read my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on Amazon.com  and on Amazon.ca  as well as a number of other online book stores)

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