Setting up projects for success: psychological safety in Defence

Charlotte Townsend Sean McDaniel

By Charlotte Townsend, Marcus Dowdeswell, Chris Cole, Sean McDaniel

Project delivery is a complex and transformational activity for any organisation. It’s especially true at the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD), which oversees some of the most technically complicated, risky, and costly procurement programmes in government.

Psychological safety has been proven to influence performance in public and private workplaces. It’s also thought to increase engagement and wellbeing, and reduce turnover which is particularly important for complex, uncertain, and interdependent environments such as the defence industry. Building on our previous research with the MOD and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) into Project Initiation, we collaborated with MOD to explore psychological safety on MOD programmes, summarised in a report.

The report was launched with an audience of 280 virtual attendees from across Defence in  July 2022 via a panel discussion where senior leaders explored the key findings and insights from the study.

Exploring the value of psychological safety with MOD

To understand how psychology safety impacts programme delivery, we interviewed Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) and Programme Directors, and surveyed members of their programme teams, gaining over 240 responses. Programmes involved the Land, Maritime, Air, Centre and Digital domains, with a combined through life value of approximately £60 billion.

As expected, we found strong evidence that psychological safety improves both team performance and individual wellbeing. Psychological safety explained 40 per cent of variance in perceptions of team performance, while programmes scoring in the top quartile for psychological safety had 47 per cent higher median wellbeing scores than those in the bottom quartile. For leaders facing increasing demands to deliver within increasingly challenging environments, building psychological safety in teams could offer the best opportunity for success. 

Understanding why leadership behaviours and clarity of direction matter 

The biggest impact on psychological safety in teams comes from leadership behaviours. This is different from the norm as broader literature commonly highlights learning behaviours as the key factor. This may be a reflection of the hierarchal nature of the MOD project environment. 

Despite the intense pressures felt by SROs, we found that simple actions on behalf of leaders, such as providing an ongoing presence and being available for discussion had a significant impact on how psychologically safe the team felt. The key here is that teams don’t need their leaders to have all the answers but to provide the space and support to embrace challenges as opportunities. 

The next biggest impact came from clarity of direction and the time invested in understanding what the team is striving to accomplish. At PA we know that purpose is a critical value for organisations to thrive. Defence programmes often have a powerful and important purpose, but to build truly psychologically safe environments it needs to be possible to make a clear link between day-to-day activity and that overarching purpose; often this means thinking not just about what the team is doing, but how they are doing it. 

We also found that:

  • The strategic environment inhibits SRO’s ability to create psychologically safe environments by creating a pattern of ‘learned helplessness’. Our leadership development support can help SROs and other leaders manage this, while the MOD also recognise the need to change behaviours at the very top.
  • Working across organisational boundaries, as is so often essential in major programmes, can make building psychological safety harder. Leaders need the tools and skills to unite people across those boundaries.
  • Embracing risk was the hardest aspect of psychological safety for our respondents; this is unsurprising given government’s responsibility to demonstrate efficiency for taxpayers but may be inhibiting delivery of value.

The MOD is now developing an offering for projects and programmes across the department to provide psychological safety as a service.

Read the full report here.

About the authors

Charlotte Townsend
Charlotte Townsend Defence and security expert
Marcus Dowdeswell PA defence and security expert
Chris Cole PA defence and security expert
Sean McDaniel
Sean McDaniel PA defence and security expert

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