A recent article on the need for psychological safety to ensure high performing teams caused a bit of pause. Not that the overall concept was a problem – psychological safety is essential for high performing teams as well as for employee well-being. In fact, for us, fostering this environment is foundational to making the workplace a better place. What caused some discomfort was how the author described dealing with conflict to move his or her own agenda forward.

And the problem wasn’t that there shouldn’t be conflict. In fact, psychological safety doesn’t mean a workplace free of conflict – quite the opposite. Teams with high psychological safety often have energetic debates and conflict. Not only is conflict inevitable for high performing teams, but beneficial and desirable. The challenge is keeping conflict from becoming toxic or personal. We use the terms, ‘collaborative confrontation’, and ‘harmonious disagreements.’

The point is to enhance collaborative approaches and reduce competition, or a ‘winners’ versus ‘losers’ mentality. Conflict should enrich the parties involved and invite differing perspectives to view the discussion topic from all angles, but not in a way that one member positions their view so that they ‘win’ their argument. That’s what was implied in the article, which isn’t collaborative confrontation, or psychological safety but individual competition to ‘win’. And this view doesn’t foster high performing teams.

Instead, team members are open to other ways of thinking, to finding mutually beneficial approaches and/or solutions based on differing perspectives, and to learning together. An older HBR article and recent recorded release, while intended for a different purpose, outlined steps that enhance psychological safety for high performing teams.

1 – work with more, rather than less information: to debate the real issues, gather objective data not opinions.

2 – enrich the debate with multiple options for the team to consider – if there are only two options then the team may split into entrenched fractions, but if there are multiple options, then the team spends their energy on creative solutions.

3 – a selfish common goal – when strategic choices are framed as opportunities to collaborate rather than compete, and less about winners and losers.

4 – inject humor – humor relieves tension and increases the thrill of a challenge rather than stress the stress of competing. Humor increases collaboration rather than competition.

5 – maintain balanced corporate management structure – rather than one person making all the decisions, leverage managers with the authority and resources to make decisions.

6 – define how final decisions will be made without forcing consensus. Sure, try to come to agreement, but if not then the most senior person makes the decisions with input and considerations from all…. So all share ideas and realize that their input matters.

These steps get more at the heart of psychological safety rather than a winner take all mentality. Contact us if you would like to discuss fostering psychological safety for high performing teams – which also enhances employee well-being.