If you type the term “psychological safety” into a search engine like Google, you will get around 758,000 results and the number is increasing daily. This demonstrates the extent to which this concept has come into vogue, largely as a result of two things; the publication of the findings of a project at Google into high performing teams and the impressive cannon of research undertaken by Prof Amy Edmondson at Harvard Business School

What does psychological safety mean?

Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes and the findings are every clear that when it is present, positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broaden the mind and help teams build psychological, social, and physical resources. They become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when they feel safe. The many business benefits of psychological safety that follow include lower staff turnover, quicker integration of new technologies, more innovation and creativity and much faster adaptation to changing markets. To read more about psychological safety click here.

Prof Amy Edmundson’s’ research includes After Action Review (AAR) as an indicator of psychological safety in teams, as its use suggests a leadership mindset that is curious and inclusive and a team that seeks to learn. Yet, as far as I know, Prof Edmondson doesn’t explore how the best AARs actually create psychological safety in themselves. My experience has been that the work of a trained “AAR Conductor” and the cultural context in which AAR is practiced can combine to create a psychologically safe space for learning, where no one will be punished or humiliated, and ideas and concerns can be fully explored. This in turn has a positive impact on behaviours and mind set outside of the AAR.

What does psychological safety look like in action?

This was very well illustrated by two AARs I led recently. One was for Fairoaks Ltd*, a fortune 500 company where AAR is fully embedded in the UK business and part of everyday practice. The other was for an IT Programme Delivery Board at Eastlands CCG*,  a large NHS Clinical Commissioning Group where only the IT Director had participated in an AAR before.

Fairoaks Ltd wanted to hold an AAR to review their recent 5 day bi-annual meeting held for 500 staff and I was asked to lead it, as so many of their own AAR Conductors wished to participate in the AAR itself. It had been an enormously successful event, exceeding expectations and really increasing business alignment and performance. Yet because AAR is embedded in their culture, they knew it would be valuable to understand and learn about the factors that supported success and identify where improvements could be made. At Eastlands, the IT Director called the AAR mid-way through several major IT projects because so many difficulties had arisen and she wanted to repair relationships and help all to learn what would support greater effectiveness going forward.

For all the people involved in both “actions” a great deal of individual learning had already taken place and because of the psychological safety established through the AAR process, we were able to build this into a much richer picture and create shared models of understanding. The learning at Fairoaks included the recognition of the value of having a professional programme manger on the organising team and many logistical lessons were recorded for the benefit of the next meeting organisers. The Eastlands AAR participants learnt that, as trust between them, (and other delivery partners) had broken down, the need for constant assurance had meant strategic decision making had become impossible.  The AAR allowed them to explore together what they could do to rebuild trust and reduce burdensome assurance requirements.

The two AARs differed because of the amount of psychological safety present. At Fairoaks, the participant’s comfort and familiarity with AAR meant psychological safety was largely there at the outset and the learning came thick and fast whereas at Eastlands, I had use the AAR ground rules to establish psychological safety at the outset, and maintain it throughout, which meant the AAR took 3 hours instead of the 90 minutes at Fairoaks.

The similarity with both was that all participants left the AARs with practical learning and having much greater insight into other people’s experience of their shared action and feeling more positive and open minded about future team working, both of which are strong indicators that psychological safety was increased.

Please do get in touch if you want to learn how to establish and maintain high levels of psychological safety in your teams.

In case you are interested Google has 360,000 results for “After Action Review” currently!

* not the real company name.