Creating Psychological Safety and Healthy Conflict

August 22, 2023

Psychological safety is the ability to be vulnerable without fear of negative consequences.

This post is an excerpt from our Creating Psychological Safety and Healthy Conflict guide, available to members in our exclusive learning library.

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Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is the ability to be vulnerable without fear of negative consequences.

It's the belief that you won't be punished or embarrassed when you make a mistake, raise a different perspective, ask for help, or admit a failure.

Google led a multi-year project that looked across 180 teams and identified what makes the strongest teams. Psychological safety was by far the most important criterion impacting team effectiveness.

By creating psychological safety on our teams, we can expect to see higher levels of engagement, increased motivation to tackle difficult problems, and better performance.

Plus, psychological safety encourages people to try new things and embrace conflict— essential ingredients for learning and innovation.

The Importance of Conflict

Conflict is inevitable and important for any team; it's a necessary part of getting smart people together to solve a problem. The difference is in how conflict is expressed on a team.

Unhealthy conflict can drain psychological safety from a team and create a toxic, unsafe culture. On the other hand, healthy conflict can promote creativity, innovation, and productive discussion and debate.

The Four Horsemen

How do you know if a team has unhealthy conflict? John and Julie Gottman, two famous social psychologists, studied relationships in marriages.

Many of their findings are relevant to the corporate world. They identified four behaviors that exist in unhealthy conflict and called these the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse because they predict the end of relationships:

  1. Criticism: Verbally attacking personality or character
  2. Contempt: Treating others with disrespect and mockery; assuming moral superiority over them
  3. Defensiveness: Playing the victim and/or making excuses to reverse the blame
  4. Stonewalling: Withdrawing from the action, shuts down and simply stops responding

The Four Horsemen often arrive in packs. When we express one, it snowballs into expressing others. And people tend to fight fire with fire— they react to horsemen with more horsemen.

Fortunately, each horseman has an antidote that enables a healthier culture of conflict.

Learn more in our full guide to creating psychological safety and healthy conflict — available now in The Grand World, our digital experience.

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