Power Players: Shaping major project success through psychologically safe environments

By Marcus Dowdeswell

Major projects are the means through which much of the UK’s critical infrastructure, national security, and modernisation ambitions are delivered. To succeed in delivering critical outcomes to time, cost, and quality metrics, the teams involved need to be responsive to issues and concerns, engage in moderate risk-taking, and feel able to show vulnerability without the fear of reprisal.

Displaying these traits becomes far easier in a psychologically safe environment. Amy Edmondson, who amplified psychological safety with her research on hospital teams in the mid-1990’s, explains that psychological safety promotes engagement and motivation in teams, leads to better decision making, and fosters a culture of continuous improvement. All of which are key features of high performing teams.

Last year we worked with the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) to understand psychological safety in the context of UK Defence projects. We found the behaviours of project and team leaders to be the most important factor in achieving psychologically safe conditions. However, pressures to deliver make it difficult for leaders to strike the balance of maintaining accountability within their teams whilst also enabling psychological safety. Leaders’ attention can easily shift away from activities that build psychological safety as the stresses of delivery grow.

One of our most basic human instincts helps to explain why this is such a fragile balance to strike. Stress caused by uncertainty in the work environment is processed by our brains in a similar way to physical threats. So our stress response, designed to keep us safe from physical harm, kicks in and prioritises threat avoidance. Just when we need a sense of perspective and a strategic outlook, our brain struggles to co-operate. In high-pressure situations we are hardwired psychologically to narrow our focus and double down on delivery, and we end up losing sight of the bigger picture.

But once leaders are aware of the impact of prioritising ‘delivery’ at the expense of fostering the right environment for their teams, they can choose to act differently, and begin to build a space of psychological safety. Some senior project leaders are naturally adept in recognising the importance of this balance, whereas for others it requires a conscious mindset shift.

Our experience in this area has identified three key initiatives that project leaders can utilise to help build psychological safety:

1. Set and communicate a compelling vision for your teams

Our joint research with UK MOD identified setting and communicating a compelling vision as the second most important factor in creating psychological safety, after leader behaviours. Leaders should seek to regularly reaffirm team direction, especially surrounding geo-political changes. Frequent discussion on team direction inspires a sense of purpose and stability (which we know to be pivotal to individual wellbeing), as well as renewed focus on the ‘art of the possible’ to achieve important, purposeful outcomes.

2. Know your team

Our work with the RAF-led HYDRA programme amplified the importance of identifying and sharing team strengths and preferences to build a psychologically safe environment that encourages diversity of thought. Creating a shared understanding of team member’s individual strengths and how these can impact on team dynamics and roles will enable colleagues to work together more effectively.

3. Be curious and consistent

Demonstrate curiosity by being open minded, asking to learn and understand, and explore reasoning when things don’t go as planned. By consistently leading by example, holding team members to account in a consistent way, creating a culture of equity, and promoting a no blame culture, leaders can ensure that teams feel psychologically secure, and able to bring their best selves to the table. Being consistent doesn’t mean that they won’t ever slip-up, but it does mean leaders acknowledging and owning their mistakes, and committing to continuous growth

The highest performing teams operate in a psychologically safe environment. The behaviour of project leaders is essential for enabling this safety, particularly when operating in complicated and risky environments.

About the authors

Marcus Dowdeswell PA defence and security expert

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