Fostering psychological safety as a manager

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People and Culture

Fostering psychological safety as a manager

Tom North's avatar
  1. Tom North
4 min read

Psychological safety is incredibly important to us. How do we foster it in a high-performing scale-up environment? Tom North, platform engineering manager, shares his thoughts.

The most productive and innovative working environments prioritise psychological safety as an important part of company culture, which is why it’s so high on 9fin’s agenda.

Our people team recently shared a webinar from The Happiness Index on cultivating psychological safety, and encouraged managers to attend.

I found refocusing on psychological safety to be a useful learning experience, particularly as a new manager getting up to speed on the role. I hope this blog provides some food for thought in those who have not yet explored the concept of psychological safety or, like myself, haven’t consciously revised their understanding on it.

There is a huge amount of literature on what psychological safety is, but what struck me was the term ‘sense of belonging’, and the fundamental role it plays.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is often misconstrued — it isn’t a utopian vision where we’re all happy, all the time.

To quote Gabe Barrett, CIO at Transworld Systems and the guest speaker on The Happiness Index webinar: “Psychological safety is the ability for people to take interpersonal risks within a team. If they make a mistake, or ask questions, they are not at risk of losing their sense of belonging to the team.”

There is a huge amount of literature on what psychological safety is, but what struck me about the above quote was the term ‘sense of belonging’, and the fundamental role it plays.

Paired with the communication style of radical candour (challenge directly, care personally), you can create an incredibly healthy, open, and transparent team culture that is psychologically safe for your direct reports.

How can new managers create this environment?

There were several themes that resonated with me from the webinar, but to pick out my top four:

1. Spend your initial time listening to others

Unless there are extreme circumstances, you don’t need to stamp your view or authority on the situation as a new manager. Make sure you spend your time speaking to people and getting their views.

It will take longer than you think to build trust and for the team to figure you out. Instead let them see your full self — warts and all.

Identify your strengths, but also understand you have knowledge gaps and you need the experience and knowledge of others to succeed.

2. Don’t shy away from ‘I don’t know’

Get the experience of saying ‘I don't know’ as early as possible in your career — it’s a skill to learn. To quote Gabe Barrett again: “When we create leadership models around one person who has all the answers, we are robbing ourselves and others of the ability to learn.”

It is reassuring for a team to see their leaders expose their vulnerability — if their leaders can do it, so can they.

3. Be confident, but humble

It’s important to strike the right balance between confidence and humility. Identify your strengths, but also understand that you have knowledge gaps and that you need the experience and knowledge of others to succeed.

4. Be mindful of how you use language

There’s a certain toxicity that comes with micromanagement. Telling others what to do leads to fear, because the logical suffix to each command is “or else”.

Define and decide the goal, but ask the team how to achieve it — “Here’s what we need to achieve. As a team, how do you think we should do this?”

We want to encourage our teams to be curious and to be able to problem-solve.

As managers we need to learn to become comfortable with saying ‘I don’t know’ more often, and letting the wisdom of the collective team drive us to the solution.

Why is psychological safety important at a scale-up?

Here are a few reasons why we prioritise this at 9fin — and why scale-ups can benefit from psychological safety. Establishing this environment:

  • Encourages people to innovate and challenge the status quo, driving continuous improvement
  • Allows employees to see the big picture and make connections, rather than limiting the scope of our impact
  • Helps maintain high morale and contributes to good mental health, as small problems are less likely to be over-amplified
  • Boosts collaboration — we want to benefit from the wisdom of crowds, not have them waiting to be told what to do
  • Keeps you “playing to win”, rather than “playing to not lose”. We’re ambitious, competitive, and always looking forward

Blameless culture is highly pertinent too. Things will go wrong — mistakes and bad decisions will happen.

But it is important that we learn from these mistakes as a team, identify the processes and reasoning that led to failure, and ensure that blame doesn’t fall on the shoulders of an individual.

Reflecting psychological safety in our values

The benefits are evident, but in order to foster the right environment, this level of safety needs to be considered in the core values of a business.

Here’s how we reflect psychological safety across several of our values, including:

  • Don’t know — say so: in a psychologically safe environment, employees should all feel comfortable asking for help. They should also step up to help others without judgement
  • Never settle: psychological safety is paramount to ensure that new ideas and experience are constantly pushing that needle forwards, making sure 9fin is invaluable to our customers
  • Make time for others: we need to make time for people so they can comfortably ask for help when they don’t know what action to take, without fear that they’ll be seen as inconveniencing others
  • Overcommunicate: in a psychologically safe environment, we openly share ideas, knowledge, and experience. That requires us to all engage constructively — agree enthusiastically, or disagree respectfully and with substance

As managers we need to learn to become comfortable with saying ‘I don’t know’ more often, and letting the wisdom of the collective team drive us to the solution.

Want to work at a business that’s committed towards helping managers succeed? Join 9fin — we’re hiring.

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