Think like an investor: Psychological safety and its place in startup culture

Hustle. Crush it. Hypergrowth. Disruption. Do these phrases sound familiar? Commonly heard in the startup space, these words describe what we think of as the startup journey. Startups require people to constantly perform at their peak. This is “the hustle.” This is “crushing it.” These phrases glorify the startup journey, seeming to add a touch of glamour to the relentless pace of the startup life. But it is foolish to assume that this high-risk, high-reward scenario will not result in frayed nerves, high tension and the worst: a toxic work culture. 

Is a toxic work culture inevitable for a startup? Can a startup guard against it? The answer lies in psychological safety.  Also known as high-trust environments, team members in such teams are comfortable providing feedback or having disagreements without feeling their job security threatened. In a highly volatile and demanding work environment like a startup, psychological safety is one of the key contributors to building a successful work culture.

Back to Basics: What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is a concept in group dynamics, defined as a “shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking,” and “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.” It is one of the key aspects of effective team learning. Research shows that examples of team learning behavior “include seeking feedback, sharing information, asking for help, talking about errors, and experimenting.”

Psychological safety became more well known when Google released its findings of team effectiveness in 2015. It found that “the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles.” Google also found that team members who feel higher psychological safety are less likely to leave, be more open to diverse ideas from their peers, bring in more revenue, and be rated as more effective. 

Why is psychological safety important?

In a high-pressure place like a startup, high-trust teams are important to keep the gears turning for growth. At the early stage, founders are likely to be embracing psychological safety without realizing it. Employee numbers are small. And if they are trying to build something, they have to be open to feedback to succeed. But as the startup grows and more people join, different viewpoints become more common. Layers of management start to emerge so the rapid growth rate can be addressed. It’s at this stage that building trust into the culture becomes crucial. By creating a safe space, your team will focus on collaboration and problem-solving, instead of being distracted by job security, incompetence or insecurity.

Building a psychologically safe culture - never too early to start! Here’s how:

1) Founders, be aware of your behaviour

Startup founders are unique among business leaders. Unlike executives in established companies, startup founders have to figure out their leadership capacity. They rely on the honesty of those who surround them to figure out what they are good and bad at. They have to be hyper self-aware about how they lead and have to be extra vigilant about the culture they are building.

As the company grows, founders are directly responsible for the engagement and morale of their employees. How they respond to unpleasant news, handle disappointment and give credit form the initial foundation of the workplace culture. By embracing feedback, leading by example, and choosing to problem-solve (instead of assigning blame), founders can lay the foundation for psychological safety early, and train the company to grow with this approach. 

2) You hired the best, trust them

HBR defines a successful team as a generative team. In such teams, leaders not only hire for cognitive diversity (this refers to the different ways that people perceive and process information) but also create an environment where mistakes are treated with curiosity and responsibility is shared for any outcome. As a result,  people can express their thoughts and ideas without fear of workplace retribution. But these environments are fragile and can be compromised in an instant, even with something as innocent as an ill-timed sigh.

“As a [startup] founder, it can be tempting to exercise influence on topics that you’re familiar with, especially if it has to do with the company. But founders need to be careful not to jump in too quickly. They have to allow people to do the work and trust the process. Founders should also not consider themselves an exception to processes such as appraisals.”  
Beth Samuel, Head of People, iPrice

3) Simply be human

Trust emerges when you know that you can be vulnerable without judgment or risk. The easiest way to create trust? Acknowledging the humanity in situations.

It is common enough wisdom yet it remains one of the hardest aspects of team building. Acknowledging the humanity requires empathy; it requires acknowledgment of the parts of ourselves that we don’t like seeing in a professional setting: our need for respect, validation, and freedom. However, recognizing these needs bring them out into the open, preventing them from festering and turning into hidden agendas.

Especially useful before any contentious conversations, one reflection exercise, “Just like Me” requires you to consider how other involved persons are just like you; Just like you, they have families, beliefs, anxieties, and needs. Going through this exercise forces you to embrace empathy before embarking on any contentious or heated argument, which will create a more conducive environment.

Further Reading
The two traits of the best problem solving teams

Smells Like Team Spirit

Why You Should Prioritize Psychological Safety to have an Innovative Team

The five keys to a successful Google team

What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team

Teams solve problems faster when they are more cognitively diverse 

Video: Amy Edmondson - Building a psychologically safe workplace