To understand psychological safety go where people feel vulnerable

Fifteen people gather in a church hall one evening. They are all there for the same reason, and it’s quite a personal, emotionally vulnerable thing that they are there to do, and yet they all seem to feel at ease. There are lots of smiles as they joke with each other.

These people are at a Slimming World meeting. And everything they all do is designed to tackle people’s worries, make them feel part of the group, feel that they won’t be judged, just feel safe. From member-only Facebook Groups to not talking about their weight, to the quite strict rules and expectations that the leader is very practiced in reinforcing in positive and supportive ways, all of these things foster a psychological safety for the members that keeps them coming back.

All of this is interesting if like me, you’re interested in how psychological safety is created and maintained in groups of people with common goals. Most work teams I’ve seen don’t have psychological safety anywhere near the level of these people. But why, what is it about work teams that means they can’t achieve an environment and atmosphere anywhere near as supportive as this group? Is it to do with the external pressures that are applied to a team from outside themselves and perhaps they don’t feel any control over, is it that they don’t have a common ‘enemy’ (for want of a better word) to rally against, or leadership that has a clear and consistent approach to providing boundaries and expectations.

Clearly, creating psychological safety within a team is a complicated and difficult thing, but lessons in how to do it and why its important can be found in unlikely places.