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Centaur Stage Season 2 Ep.11- Coaching for Psychological Safety with Dr. Hayley Lewis

Centaur Stage is a weekly video series produced by Cosmic Centaurs, and this second season is all about the magic of teams. Each Thursday afternoon, on LinkedIn Live, at 3:30 PM UAE-time, Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs, is joined by incredible guests who share insights, opinions, and perspectives about what makes teams cohesive, high-performing, and happy.

This episode is the first of the third chapter of Centaur Stage Season 2, all about coaching teams. Marilyn hosted Dr. Hayley Lewis, the Founder & Director of HALO Psychology, and they discussed the ‘how’ of psychological safety, and the practices and habits in teams that can implement it.

Watch the full episode here.

About Dr. Hayley Lewis

Dr. Hayley Lewis is an award-winning psychologist with more than 20 years’ experience in the field of organizational and business psychology. Her specific area of expertise is leadership and management behavior and how this can affect culture and performance and she spends most of her time supporting organizations of all sizes on these issues. Hayley’s academic research is in entrepreneurship and the psychology of success for women in business, and she helps women wanting in the early stages of business ownership.

Hayley’s experience includes 11 years leading various local government services, such as organizational development; ICT strategy; customer services; communications and digital transformation. During this time, she won national recognition for her work on leadership development and culture change. Before this, Hayley spent eight years at the BBC where she was an organizational psychologist, supporting leadership development and executive assessment activity; and where she worked on what was then the world’s biggest culture change programme in 2001.

As well as running her own consultancy, Hayley is a lecturer on Masters programmes in Organizational and Business Psychology programmes at several UK universities.

Her specialist topics are organizational culture, leadership behavior and development, and building high-performance teams. Hayley is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. In 2021, she was identified as one of the most influential thinkers in HR, by HR Magazine.

About the Topic

Psychological safety is a topic that is very dear to Marilyn, as she and the Cosmic Centaurs often help their clients think through how to create it in their teams. Psychological safety is one of the key dimensions of high performing teams, as Google’s Project Aristotle study from 2015 had shown - when team members feel safe to express their thoughts and opinions, and trust one another to have each other’s backs, they are able to get breakthrough ideas.

Psychological safety is also very important in remote teams, where the lack of physical closeness can be translated into emotional distance if one does not take explicit steps to build connections with their team members. Plenty of studies show how necessary psychological safety is, and this episode was about the “how” of it: how do we train team members and leaders to have psychological safety? What are the steps team leaders should take to have a psychologically safe environment for their team members?

Key Learnings from the episode

1. Defining psychological safety

According to Hayley, “Psychological safety is feeling able to take a risk, try stuff out, and even give feedback higher up the chain, without fear of being penalized or experiencing a backlash as a result of taking that risk.”

Psychological safety means not having to avoid tough conversations, but doing that in a respectful and compassionate way, without jumping into conclusions, not jumping to pre-judgment about a situation or why someone's done something in a certain way. “It's about having that kind of curiosity. It’s about having a situational leadership style, also known as contingent leadership, where you're adapting your style of leadership according to what the other person needs. It might either mean that you should take on a more directive style, or it that you should adopt a more supportive kind of listening style”, explained Hayley.

2. Establishing psychological safety in teams

Hayley works on coaching for psychological safety on a number of levels.:

  1. The first level is one-on-one work, including executive coaching, middle management coaching, all the way up to the board level. It increases self-awareness in leaders and helps become comfortable in their own skin. “As a team leader, you have to be comfortable with who you are and how you show up, because it has an impact on how much you share with your team and what you role model”, said Hayley.

  2. Workshops for groups of managers and leaders, which allows them to pick apart the different elements of high-performance teams, including psychological safety, through the teaching of tools and techniques.

  3. Team building, team development, and team coaching, which usually either work with teams wanting to resolve conflict, or if it’s a new team that wants to get psychological safety right from the beginning.

3. Team culture is complex, and implementing psychological safety might look different in every team, but in every case everybody plays a part in it.

Team members and leaders should be paying attention to the habits within the team that can either reinforce or hinder psychological safety.

4. Although everyone is involved in psychological safety, it starts with the leader putting in place the template, and making the time for team building activities.

“One of the things that really facilitate psychological safety is the levels of familiarity people have in the team with each other. The more familiar they are with each other, the more likely it is that they will easily and readily share information and knowledge with one another, without the leader constantly having to suggest that they do that”, said Hayley. Marilyn added to that insight, “As soon as you start to know someone, all of the distance, the judgment, the walls that exist between the two of you, disappear. It’s as if we're programmed to care about the people we know something about, and it works magically.”

Hayley Lewis on psychological safety in teams

5. Vulnerability for a leader can be as simple as asking for advice.

Being curious and saying, ‘I'm really interested in what you think about the situation that we're experiencing’, particularly in a hierarchical organization, is a form of vulnerability. Vulnerability is also about considering which parts of your history you are comfortable sharing, and Hayley role models that by sharing instances from her past that made her feel ashamed from when she failed the first time she was in graduate school.

6. Finding what we've got in common is one of the essential ingredients of psychological safety.

According to Hayley, “If we're spending all our time focusing on what makes us different, that means we're constantly pitting ourselves against each other where we're opposite sides of the table. Whereas if we try to find what we have in common, even the littlest thing, it puts us both on the same side of the table. We can then focus on the problem, rather than the personal.”

7. Psychological safety needs to be a two-way discussion.

“The aim is to understand for the person in front of you, what's the best way you can support them, and what works for them. A fundamental bit is knowing what's the best way to challenge them, maybe through challenging their behavior or giving them a critique on some work they've done in a way that wouldn’t make them defensive. Understanding the other person is the best way to do that”, said Hayley. In those one-on-ones, team leaders don’t need to have all the answers for the person, it’s more about creating space for team members to open up. That can mean being silent for a while to allow for the other person to talk, as there can be real vulnerability in that silence.

8. There are great online tools that can help implement psychological safety and the conversations around them.

The Support Challenge Framework, and The Fearless Organization test, which is from Amy Edmondson’s book, titled the same way, are two examples Hayley shared. The team scan from the Fearless Organization test can help in baselining teams’ levels of psychological safety, and the Support Challenge Framework helps in creating conversations in one-on-ones.

9. When teams have strong levels of high levels of psychological safety, they navigate conflict without personal attacks.

Conflict becomes focused on the problem itself rather than the individuals who are involved, and the conversation isn't avoided, but it takes place openly. Teams with lower levels of psychological safety, or even none, tend to have those conversations behind each other's backs, or end up asking the manager to sort it out rather than try to have an open conversation.

10. Academic research on psychological safety can be turned into the practical

Sometimes academic papers includes lots of jargon, and are difficult to understand, which can discourage people from reading them. It’s important for practitioners to make that content more accessible, as Hayley does with her sketches on Linkedin. 50% of her work comes off the back of sketch notes.

“If It's something that resonated with someone, then it's an issue they're dealing with”, Hayley said. As for Marilyn, she follows that principle by storytelling evidence-based recommendations to her clients.

11. Different people trust differently, and this can come into play with psychological safety.

Some people trust easily, and only take back their trust once it has been betrayed, and some people take a long time before deciding whether to trust the other or not. Studies have shown that the more trusting a team leader, the more likely their team is to be psychologically safe. However, it’s important to note that context also always plays a big role, and it’s not always about trusting personalities.

12. Psychological safety matters in all kinds of teams.

That is because most people spend most of their time at work or doing their work, in a pandemic world, and aren't often in the office or work buildings (unless the work is at a hospital or police station). “To do our best work and show up as our best selves, we need to feel comfortable and safe. Psychological safety matters in all contexts”, concluded Hayley.

🔥Rapid Fire

The one thing every team needs is…”Time to get to time to get to know each other”

The one thing a team needs to avoid…”Complacency”

A good team leader is…”Self-aware”

The best book on teams is…”The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

What’s your favorite team ritual? “Checking in over a coffee or a cup of tea before the formal meeting starts”

Centaur Stage host Marilyn Zakhour with guest Hayley lewis


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