Driving Psychological Safety in Your Bid Team

How Inclusive Behaviors Lead to Success

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Picture this scenario: You’re in a meeting at work, surrounded by people you may not identify with. Perhaps they are at a different experience level or in a different area of expertise, and you feel like an outsider. On top of that, management just announced that they’re mandating a new process — with buy-in from leadership — and this meeting is just a formality to try to get everyone on board. Except you know that this process won’t work, and you have the experience and the data to prove it. There’s a better solution, but you’re afraid to bring it up.

If you’ve ever hesitated to speak up and share an idea, ask a question or offer a potential solution for fear of being humiliated or punished at work, it’s likely you’re not in an environment that cultivates psychological safety.

What Is Psychological Safety?

According to a 2017 Gallup survey, 70% of U.S. employees believe their opinions don’t count at work. That’s a high proportion of the workforce that feels like “why bother” when it comes to voicing their opinions, and a high number of great ideas that are being missed. In her 1999 study, “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams,” Amy Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” Teams with psychological safety feel comfortable in sharing their concerns with each other. They listen, experiment, fail fast and learn.

In her 2018 book, “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth,” Edmondson found that teams that made more mistakes were more successful than others because those who felt they could take risks fostered more innovation in the workplace.

Like all behaviors, psychological safety is not something you can switch on. Teams don’t just magically perform together; they go through phases of development. Depending on the maturity of your team on the “forming, storming, norming and performing” model of high performance, as highlighted in the 1977 review “Stages of Small-Group Development Revisited,” it may take greater or lesser effort to drive psychological safety. When you are in the early stages of maturing your team (either forming or storming), it may be quite hard to evoke a psychologically safe environment. People are concentrating on getting to know each other and their place within the team, so they may start with a lesser level of psychological safety. It is important to remember this when you are forming a bid team who has not previously worked together.

Primarily, though, the majority of your team must want to behave in a psychologically safe manner. According to “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety,” for teams who want to build a culture of psychological safety, there are four stages:

Recognizing Unsafe Behavior

Even highly motivated teams can take a while to progress through the stages of psychological safety. Sometimes just feeling included is a challenge. Liu et al., found the way a leader behaves can have a fundamental impact on the psychological safety of the team. Therefore, it is important to recognize the behaviors that can damage psychological safety. Moments where I have felt less safe have had at least one of the following characteristics:

  1. Using fear as a motivation. This leader drives action through negative consequences rather than positive reinforcement. There is a fear of being reprimanded or feeling you will lose your job. This anxious situation means you constantly think about the leader’s emotions. You become focused on the consequences rather than the task itself.
  2. Blaming. Tied in with fear of repercussions, a leader can create a blame culture by looking for the scapegoat or removing themselves of responsibility. Constantly asking “who” will create anxiety among the team, and people will not want to admit to work, good or bad.
  3. Breaking a promise. Sometimes unforeseen factors cause a promise to be broken. However, if this happens without explanation, this can break trust. I’ve always found that if a promise gets broken, it is best to talk about it, apologize and explain why it happened.
  4. Promoting one’s importance. This leader will use material gestures to show their power and authority. They may have a larger desk, exclusive access to the nice coffee machine, an ability to expense things that you couldn’t. This person likes to feel important, and they want everyone to know they are. However, by doing this, they exclude themselves from the team. They may be seen as a helicopter boss, sweeping in, causing disruption and then going back to their large desk again. This creates a “them and us” hierarchy.
  5. Claiming team success as their own. Some leaders feel the need to take the credit for team success. They will talk in the first person about something the team did or say they had more of a strong steer on the success. This loses the team’s desire to support the leader.
  6. Micromanaging. The micromanager looks over your shoulder and constantly checks up on you, so much you feel they might as well have done the task themselves. It leaves you feeling that you don’t have any freedom or decisions over your actions, and you feel as though you cannot be trusted.

Be conscious of your own behaviors. If you start to recognize any of these in your actions, you have an opportunity to do something different to increase the level of psychological safety. If you see these behaviors in others, be brave and call it out. It is only by being open that we can change.

What Bid Professionals Can Do

As bid leaders, we should use Edmondson’s findings to drive psychological safety within our teams:

  1. Talk about it. The bid kick-off is a great time to evoke discussions on psychological safety. Relate the safe environment to your bid and wider goals. Set the tone for innovation, engagement and inclusion in your bid and live by what you say in your actions. This will build trust in your team.
  2. Everyone has a voice. Throughout the capture lifecycle, there will be many group discussions and sometimes you’ll find that person who attends but doesn’t say anything. Find an opportunity to show genuine curiosity — that you want their opinion. Be open-minded and compassionate.
  3. What is failure? In the high-pressure environment that is bids, it can be hard to not drive a “right first time” approach. However, in most bids, there will be something that doesn’t quite go to plan. Establish what trial and error looks like, and encourage lessons throughout the capture.
  4. Bid ideas hub. Throughout the capture, find a space for new ideas. Ultimately by doing something different, this is what sets you apart from the competition, so allow for those mad scientist moments and embrace them, providing feedback in the context of supporting ideas.
  5. Manage conflict positively. Not all members of your bid team will want to travel in the same direction all the time. There will be differences of opinion; allow these to be constructive. Moreover, when strategizing, it is important to chew over ideas with people who have a different view and, perhaps, are not always agreeable. Taking a wider view builds confidence in your bid approach and the decisions you make.

Positive interactions are built on trust. If you give the team the benefit of the doubt and admit your own mistakes and ask for help, this will form a trusted relationship within the team that will enable psychological safety.

A psychologically safe environment is not an anything-goes environment where deadlines and standards can slip. It is an enabler to openness and creating an environment of mutual respect. So as leaders in our bids, we should consider what can we do to motivate, inspire, coach, provide feedback and make bidding excellence a rewarding experience.

Mel Kerrison is a multi-award-winning bid leader at QinetiQ. With a degree in applied psychology and sociology, she is passionate about how psychology interacts with the workplace and has presented at multiple APMP events. As part of leading bids, Kerrison is actively encouraging a psychologically safe environment within her teams.

Join the Conversation

  1. Stuart Pritchard

    A beautifully written and concise piece on a hugely important topic. Thank you Mel. Organisational norms too often centre the task at the expense of examining the behaviours that are required for teams to perform those tasks effectively. Any reminder that behaviour impacts how teams feel, and how teams feel impacts how they do their work, is a very welcome one! We would do well to pay attention more often to the social psychology of bid team excellence. The behavioural choices we make every day are at the heart of inclusion, innovation, and success.