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3 actions that will improve psychological safety: The role of feedback

Have you ever given feedback to someone, resulting in them getting defensive? It's probably a sign that that person didn't feel psychologically safe. Psychological safety can be described as the belief that you won't be punished in any way when asking for help, sharing concerns, lacking knowledge, having a different opinion or being open about mistakes. Only when this is present, people will feel at ease to be deadly honest in the feedback they give and will be able to learn from feedback they get from others without feeling insecure or offended. Psychological safety and feedback go hand in hand, so how can you as a manager use feedback as a means to create psychological safety?

The first step is to give feedback in the right way. We wrote a previous article on how to give feedback and what to pay attention to. However, there are a three other actions that are key in actually using feedback to improve the psychological safety in your team, hence increasing collaboration and business results.

Reassure and set the scene

I remember a workshop where I asked people to tell about a concrete story of them giving or receiving feedback. One answer I got was the following. "My colleague failed to deliver his task in time, so I sent him an email to say that he was too late and to push him to speed up". This shows that there can be many misconceptions as to what feedback is and where it can be used for. In a psychologically unsafe environment, people tend to think feedback equals pointing out mistakes and receiving it means having to defend yourself. However, feedback is in reality a way to grow and to help others grow in their work. As a leader, it's thus very important to stress this enough. Reassure your team members that it's ok to make mistakes and that mistakes are there to learn from.

Remember that people need to hear a message 5-7 times before it is cemented into their thinking, so make sure to mention this in multiple ways during your next series of team meetings.

Lead by example

Amy C. Edmondson, professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, states that "psychological safety is very much shaped by local leaders." So in one organization with the same corporate culture, psychological safety will differ substantially across groups. In some teams, it might be easy to speak up and be your honest self, whereas in others, you'll prefer to keep quiet. This is why the leader of a team or department plays a crucial role in installing a safe environment.

The most efficient way to show people how to deal with feedback and making mistakes is to set an example as their leader. A first action you can take to lead by example is to share one mistake or failure you made during the past weeks. Take some time during your next team meeting to explain how you failed and what you learned about it future-wise. Finish by asking them for help or their opinion on how you could do it better in the future. When people see that their manager is not afraid to admit a mistake and ask for help, it will make them feel more at ease to do the same.

Secondly, lead by example by soliciting feedback from your team. To overcome the risk that they will only give positive feedback, ask them explicitly to come up with at least one improvement point. "What can I do that will make it easier to work with me?". If you notice that they still feel very uncomfortable doing so, offer the opportunity to give the feedback anonymously. Your reaction on receiving the feedback is key in making them feel safe to do so. Make sure that you listen actively and don't interrupt. Afterwards, thank them for the feedback they gave you.

Find the right time

Give the feedback when it's applicable and relevant, not just during the bi-yearly performance meeting. Hearing the feedback at the moment will make people less defensive than when they hear it few months after the event. It also helps to continuously improve and not just at specific times in the year - and this applies for both positive feedback as improvement points. Hearing what worked well and what didn't right after an event, gives you so much insight in what aspects of your way of working should be reinforced and what aspects could be changed, so try to use your face-to-face meetings as feedback moments!

Finally TAKE time for these actions. Nothing big happens overnight, so prepare and carry out these 3 actions consistently.

If you want support to integrate a qualitative feedback culture in your team or company and start seeing the results in people's and the team's performance? Contact us or book a call with us!


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