Thursday Thoughts - Psychological Safety
During my initial work at London Irish, I was particularly fortunate to be able to work alongside Brendan Venter. A huge lesson for me during this initial period of relationship building was learning about his philosophy and his key pillars which underpin a high-performance environment. I wrongly expected quite a brutish, ‘route one’ approach – an opinion which was unconsciously developed after having watched Brendan as a club and international player. As is often the case though, this first impression couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Brendan was extremely eager to create an environment which emphasised effort, energy and attitude. Now although I believe having and actioning these qualities is a skill in itself, they are arguably more controllable, repeatable and require less talent than perhaps outstanding goal-kicking, catch-passing, jackling or chop-tackling. The idea around this for Brendan was to help players understand they are allowed to express themselves AND fail in this endeavour. That is ok, so long as they continued to bring the key accountabilities of effort, energy and attitude to life. Players and coaches would judge themselves on the input, not the outcome, allowing the latter to take care of itself and freeing individuals from fear of failure. Now that didn’t mean avoiding difficult discussions around skill deficits – as these ultimately can be the difference between winning and losing. However, one of Brendan’s best skills was linking errors in games back to effort in training. If the effort to improve the skill was present in training, then the error in-game was quickly forgotten about.
Associating a high-performance environment with one which embraces and allows mistakes, for me, was initially challenging to comprehend. However, this paradox is yet another myth of high-performance sport. Allowing failures ensures players can go and attempt their skills with full present-moment focus, as opposed to thinking, “I shouldn’t attempt that in case I mess it up and get a spray from the coach”. The minute we play trying not to make mistakes, we counterintuitively are likely to make more mistakes due to poor focus of attention and executing skills in an inhibited and self-conscious manner.
Being able to play freely can be linked to training and playing in a psychologically safe environment – one that is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Examples of this include asking for help, making and admitting one’s errors, or actively seeking feedback from others (Edmondson, 1999). Within psychologically safe environments, team members have genuine interest in, and positive intentions for, their teammates, and show mutual respect for each other’s competence even if mistakes are made (Newman et al., 2017). Conversely, when individuals feel psychologically unsafe, they will rarely demonstrate vulnerability (even if it would benefit the team) as they believe it puts them at risk of appearing incompetent, thus threatening their self-image (Edmondson, 1999; Fransen, McEwan & Sarkar; 2020).
A key question therefore is how can we foster psychologically safe environments? Frustratingly, within a sport context, I feel further research in this sphere is required to build truly evidence-based interventions. Moreover, the answer to this would almost certainly require deep contextual information, particularly around the leadership dynamic, how it interacts with its team, and the individual difference of the team members (including their history and general attitude towards risk-taking). My sense is that although it would be very challenging to foster an ‘ideal’ environment, the following three points would be a good place to start from and could certainly assist in this endeavour.
1. Transformational leadership (Burns, 1978; Bass, 1985)
Leaders within teams play a vital role in setting the climate for performance. If they are able to lead by example through showing vulnerability themselves, as well as giving individual consideration so their team members feel valued and can be themselves within the environment, they will be well on the way to creating a psychologically safe environment. Similarly, if leaders are able to provide a clear vision and clear criteria by which the team will be held to account, clarity and collective buy-in and responsibility could be fostered. Team members ‘know the score’ from the outset, and as such hold less doubt as to what is expected of them.
2. Fail-safe training sessions
Here, coaches can introduce training blocks in which stretching skills to the point of failure is actively promoted and praised. ‘Mistakes’ are positively framed and feedback revolves around how the skill can be improved and stretched even further. By doing so, players may well learn to see mistakes as opportunities as opposed to actions which are constantly measured – thus potentially playing with less fear and more freedom when it matters most. At the same time, coach-athlete relationships could be enhanced as vulnerability is shared and encouraged by both parties. Coaches may well develop the role of ‘friendly mentor’, rather than judge and jury.
A useful framework for this might be variable practice with contextual interference. Although initial training performance may be lower than a standard blocked session, such sessions delivered in an unpredictable fashion will likely result in better skill retention in the long-term (Magill & Hall, 1990). Combined with a coach philosophy underpinned by guided discovery, players will feel both stretched and supported in their quest to be the best they can be (Masters, 1992).
3. Promoting debate and cognitive diversity
Task conflict is thought to improve team performance through more creativity and better decision making (Bradley et al., 2012). However, this may also damage performance if it leads to relationship conflict. If conflict and debate is handled in a task-focused manner, whilst members learn the ability to maintain relationships despite not seeing eye-to-eye, the psychological safety of the given environment will likely improve. Such interactions may also help players learn how to embrace criticism and challenging feedback through having a task-, as opposed to self-, focus. Such a solution-oriented approach could mean honest conversations are had more often, without worrying about team members taking information the wrong way or overly personally.
As already mentioned, ways in which psychological safety can be nurtured in elite sport environments requires further empirical inquiry. However, the above ideas might not only start to develop psychological safety, but teams could mitigate against team dysfunction in the long-term.
Bass, B.M. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectations. New York: The Free Press.
Bradley, B. H., Postlethwaite, B. E., Klotz, A. C., Hamdani, M. R., & Brown, K. G. (2012). Reaping the benefits of task conflict in teams: The critical role of team psychological safety. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97, 151–158.
Burns, J.M. (1978) Leadership. New York: Harper and Row Publishers.
Edmondson, A. C. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behaviour in work teams.
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Fransen, K., McEwan, D., & Sarkar, M. (Accepted/In press). The impact of identity leadership on team functioning and well-being in team sport: Is psychological safety the missing link? Psychology of Sport and Exercise.
Magill, R. A., & Hall, K. G. (1990). A review of the contextual interference effect in motor skill acquisition. Human Movement Science, 9, 241-289.
Masters, R. S. W. (1992). Knowledge, knerves and know-how: The role of explicit versus implicit knowledge in the breakdown of a complex motor skill under pressure. British Journal of Psychology, 83, 343-358.
Newman, A., Donohue, R., & Eva, N. (2017). Psychological safety: A systematic review of
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