Psychological Safety: What It Is and How to Build it on Your Teams

psych safetyPsychological safety is the component that sets highly effective teams apart from those that are average or under-performing. It is the element that distinguishes a team that everyone wants to work for; from a team that employs demotivated and disengaged members. Psychological safety is the secret ingredient of teams that generate innovative ideas and the reason some teams retain long-term superstars, while others have high turnover.

This is a common topic of conversation right now and a sought-after initiative among organizations. A question I often get from clients is, “What is the secret to getting my team to really gel?” and “How do I quickly ramp up trust among my team?” and “What system can I implement to make my team more effective?”

My answer? There is no quick fix or formula to create an all-star team. You cannot simply host an off-site team-bonding event or improv workshop and expect trust to emerge. In fact, psychological safety is much more closely tied to how you are with your team, than what you do with them. Once you understand what psychological safety is and why it is so important in team cultures, you can begin to take some steps to foster more of it in your organization and environment, and ultimately create a team everyone wants to work for.

What Is Psychological Safety?

According to Amy Edmondson, researcher and professor of leadership at Harvard who coined the phrase psychological safety, “In a workplace, psychological safety is the belief that the environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking. People feel able to speak up when needed — with relevant ideas, questions, or concerns — without being shut down in a gratuitous way. Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able, even obligated, to be candid.” Psychological safety is about inviting and encouraging team members to speak up with a concern or an idea, instead of choosing silence.

Google released results in 2016 from a longitudinal study, where they set out to identify the most important qualities of effective teams. They discovered that psychological safety was the number one most important capacity teams could develop to improve their performance. The research project, called Project Aristotle, focused on ascertaining the secrets of effective Google teams. They measured effectiveness based on a combination of team performance and evaluations from executives, team leaders, and team members. They measured everything from personality traits, skills, and demographics of team members, to group dynamics regarding how the team members treated one another. What the research taught us was that the most important indicators for team success were all related to how well a team can work together, much more so than who is on a team.

Interestingly, the project name was a tribute to Aristotle, who said, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” which I believe to be true of teams – if the team has a strong leader.

When Teams Are Missing Psychological Safety

When a leader manages their team with an iron fist, the members often fear making mistakes. This can result in working hard to cover up mistakes, blame others, delay certain failures, and an assortment of other problems that only grow when people are too busy managing their impressions and hiding their true selves. When teams are run this way, members are often distracted by a constant risk analysis of what might happen if they own up to a mistake or speak up in a group.

Besides the effects this can have on results, they are not really present on the team or connected to others on it. If someone believes they are at risk for being punished or humiliated for bringing a new idea or different perspective forward, they hesitate, withhold, second-guess, hide, or keep their mouths shut. This can cause a lack of innovation, a stagnant and stifled environment, and an eagerness to keep the peace. Teams like this are run on secrets and fear, and the cost of this is the status quo, at best. At worst, it results in high turnover, under-performance, and a fear of going to work.

When Teams Have Psychological Safety

When team members trust one another and are comfortable enough to take risks and make their opinions known, new possibilities emerge for creativity, collaboration, and excellence. Teams with high levels of psychological safety have been shown to have higher levels of engagement, motivation, and performance. A 2020 study found that psychological safety, “is the engine of performance, not the fuel.”

Does Your Team Have Psychological Safety?

If you are not sure whether or not your team has a healthy degree of psychological safety, you might want to get curious about the facets of psych safety and how they show up — or do not show up — on your team.

Edmondson developed an assessment tool in 1999, call the Team Learning and Psychological Safety Survey, that measures the levels of psychological safety on any given team. You can get more objective answers by taking her assessment, or you can start by taking a step back and answering some of the questions that Edmonson asks when she works with teams. She asks them how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the following statements; you can respond to these for your team as objectively as possible, and have your team members answer the questions anonymously, to get a pulse on your team’s level of psychological safety:

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

(Questions taken verbatim from ReWork by Google here)

Whether your team has high or low levels of psychological safety, it is something that you can develop or develop further. While everyone on the team can contribute to creating psychological safety, a leader of a team is the best person to establish this team culture and climate, as the way they are with others sets the tone for the way others on the team will be. Here are eight important pillars you can focus on to build psych safety and a culture of trust, acceptance, and belonging on your team.

Psychological Safety Pillar 1: Create a Culture of Learning

If learning is declared as a more important goal on your team than any other task, team members won’t be afraid to make a mistake or fail, which is critical to psychological safety. It is somewhat easy to declare learning as important on your team, and much more difficult to actually live this with your team. The most important thing leaders can do to create this culture is to display their own shortcomings, mistakes, and failures, which opens up the door to view failures as learning opportunities.

Practical tips to create a team culture of learning:

  • Set the expectation that mistakes will happen, and without them, there is no progress or innovation.
  • Acknowledge your own imperfections, and invite others to correct you when you misspeak or misstep.
  • Celebrate your own failures. When you add some humor and make it look easy to publicly admit error, you invite others to do the same. You can create a mistake log and keep score, come up with a song you blast each time you make an error, or simply declare “How fascinating!” each time you stumble. Enroll your team to come up with a team celebration for failures and learnings together.

Psychological Safety Pillar 2: Refine Your Listening Skills

I love this quote by Gabrielle Thompson, senior vice president at Cisco. She said, “Many situations simply need an ear, not action. Oftentimes, problems don’t need solutions — they need presence and time.”

Too often when people are “listening,” their mind is elsewhere, either waiting for the other person to finish speaking, or preparing what it is they are going to say next. They are not actually present and listening. Sometimes leaders think they are expected to solve everybody else’s problems, so they spin their wheels trying to come up with a solution before the problem or idea is even finished being presented. This can result in people not feeling heard.

More often than not, people more deeply benefit and feel supported, when a leader is simply able to listen and hold space for them to process their challenge or concern, or hear out their idea. Being able to actively listen — with openness and curiosity and without an agenda —can be the most precious gift you give your team. It is the gift of your time, attention, and the demonstration that you are interested and engaged in what they are saying.

Practical tips to refine your listening skills:

  • Don’t multitask when you are listening – ever. Ensure your attention is in the present moment with the person who is speaking, not elsewhere. If you are distracted, reschedule for a time when you can be 100 percent present with your team member.
  • Do not bring any devices to your team meetings, and encourage team members to follow suit. At the very least, shut down email, slack, and other messaging apps while in a meeting.
  • When you listen, pay attention to the content of what you are hearing, the tone and emotion in the person’s voice who is talking, and their body language. Notice also your own reaction to what you are hearing.
  • Ask questions to clarify anything that might be unclear or that you are curious about.
  • Summarize what you are hearing to demonstrate that you are actively listening.
  • Learn about the 12 levels of active listening.

Psychological Safety Pillar 3: Develop Your Social Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a commonly touted important leadership capacity, but it does not paint the entire picture. Within emotional intelligence is a component known as social intelligence, or social awareness — this lesser known term has much more to do with a leader’s ability to lead team’s effectively than any hard skill that can be learned. A leader with higher social awareness will not only be able to read the room or group well, but also be able to adapt and respond to shifts in group dynamics as they occur.

The two components of social awareness are social recognition and social management. Social recognition reflects how aware you are of the feelings, responses, and emotional shifts in others; it relates to sensitivity, empathy, and intuition when in connection with two or more people. Social management focuses on interpersonal skills that foster connection, collaboration, and teamwork; it relates to how well you develop relationships, manage conflict, and engage with others.

One hallmark of social intelligence is the ability to give others the benefit of the doubt. Giving people grace — particularly during stressful times — is critical to developing a team culture of trust and safety. Are you someone who sees flaws and errors in others first, or focuses on their strengths? Do you jump to what was done wrong before seeing what was done right? When something goes wrong, do you focus on blame or improvement? The way you approach blame may hold some clues as to your level of social intelligence. When you are able to see the potential in others, rather than just the errors, you create a positive environment around you.

Practical tips to develop social intelligence:

  • Refine your listening skills, ensuring you are listening with your whole self and attention, with curiosity and presence, and without an agenda (see tips above in #2)
  • Invest time and energy into learning about and supporting the goals of those on your team. Look for opportunities to support their professional growth.
  • Get curious about those you work with. If you don’t already know about them, ask. Then listen to what they say. You might learn that you have some overlapping hobbies or interests if you take the time to build rapport. This also encourages people to bring their whole selves to work.
  • Make it your goal to leave every conversation, project, relationship, and exchange in a better place than when you began it.
  • Celebrate team’s successes. Acknowledge and applaud individuals where appropriate.
  • Slow down your communication — particularly if you are someone who prefers direct communication and getting straight to the point. Practice slowing down and trying out lighter conversation, versus exclusively using your “all business” mode.
  • Measure and develop gaps, where needed. You can take the EIQ-2 assessment, which measures emotional and social intelligence to learn what your areas for development may be. Contact me to learn more about the EIQ-2 tool.

Psychological Safety Pillar 4: Model Curiosity

Curiosity is the antidote to judgment and a productive alternative to blame. Leaders that are accustomed to criticizing or blaming team members create breeding ground for defensiveness and disengagement — not exactly fuel for psychologically safe teams. Instead, see if you can get curious about any given situation from various perspectives.

Asking a lot of questions in a curious — not a pushy or leading — way, can disarm the defensive, and can also invite opportunities for quieter voices to emerge. On teams that have psychological safety, all voices are heard from with relative equity, and in order to invite this, a leader must create the conditions that necessitate team members, especially those that may not normally, to share and speak up. These conditions might include systems, questions, and attitudes for the team to embrace. Get curious about how to create this on your team and enroll your team’s ideas.

Inherent in curiosity is an openness that requires you to remain nonjudgmental of new ideas and adaptable to what might emerge. You can’t be judgmental and curious at the same time — try it! Imagine if your team meetings require all attendees to remain non-judgmental of ideas that are shared. This is a powerful ground rule to nurture and support psychological safety on your team. Curiosity is the ideal attitude to support that ground rule.

Plus, embracing a curious attitude is fun and infuses a sense of lightness into what may otherwise be tricky or heavy conversations.

Practical tips for modeling curiosity:

  • Replace blame and judgment with curiosity.
  • Practice being inquisitive and asking a lot of questions, rather than jumping in with solutions.
  • Even when you are right, see if you can identify and connect with the 10 percent that is right on the other side of your argument to find some common ground, see the situation from the other side, and lower the temperature, if heated.
  • Create a culture of experimentation, where trial and error invites learning and innovation
  • Explore unfamiliar ideas and challenge your assumptions often.

Psychological Safety Pillar 5: Encourage All Voices to Be Heard

How do you get the shy ones to speak up on your team? How do you encourage ideas — particularly the wild and crazy ideas — to brainstorms? How do you get people to be vulnerable and share their thoughts, feelings, concerns, ideas, and whole selves at work? It starts by modeling openness, vulnerability, and non-judgment yourself as a leader.

You also have to be mindful of when you share your ideas. In their book, The Small BIG: Small Changes That Spark Big Influence, Martin, Goldstein, and Cialdini suggest that in meetings, when you are trying to get more diverse and creative ideas and hear from those team members who are typically quiet, you want to make sure that whomever is leading the meeting or is the leader of the group hold their ideas until the end of the meeting. This ensures that the social pressure and leader’s influence do not override good ideas from surfacing and helps to lower the influence a leader has on the group.

Practical tips for encouraging all voices to be heard:

  • Ask team members to submit ideas ahead of time to provide an alternative to sharing ideas without having to speak up in a group.
  • Begin meetings with some time in reflective silence, where team members can write down all of their ideas and turn them in before the discussions begin.
  • Take turns during meetings and discussions, ensuring everyone shares around the same amount and no one dominates a conversation.
  • Circulate a meeting agenda prior to the meeting so attendees can collect their thoughts prior.

Psychological Safety Pillar 6: Develop Feedback Loops

Create a shared understanding and common language on your team that constructive feedback is positive and necessary for professional growth, stronger connection, and continuous improvement. Model humility and your comfort with exposing your own blind spots and “not knowing,” and be outspoken that you do not have all the answers. Demonstrate that it’s appropriate to admit when you don’t know something, and ask for help or feedback when you need it.

Practical tips for developing feedback loops:

  • Create a system on your team for giving and receiving productive feedback that is anonymous. Enroll your team for ideas on how the feedback process might work.
  • Create a system on your team for giving and receiving productive feedback that is transparent. Enroll your team for ideas on how the feedback process might work.
  • Actively seek feedback on your team and use the systems your team creates.
  • Hire a coach to train your team on how to give and receive productive, constructive feedback in a disarming way.
  • Have your team complete a behavioral assessment to help employees build self-awareness, uncover their blind spots, and learn about their unique communication and work styles. Sharing profiles with one another in team activities helps create more connection, understanding, a common language, and a sense of flexibility on your team.

Psychological Safety Pillar 7: Push Back on Othering

Psychological safety cannot exist if team members feel like they do not belong in the group, or are made to feel like they are outsiders. In order to protect your team members from feeling excluded, institute a zero tolerance for interactions that cause anyone to feel disadvantaged, excluded, diminished, or deflated. Together with your team, decide what this policy looks like in real time.

Educate your team on unconscious biases and how they could be showing up on your team. If psychological safety is low on your team, you might want to work to create a shared identity and shared goal for the team, and in doing so, explore the individuals’ identities that comprise the team. Exposing the ways in which team members feel different can, in some ways, help them relate to one another, as everyone feels different or judged in at least some ways. Discussing these sensitive subjects openly can shine a light on issues that are normally swept under the rug and create a feeling of common humanity and compassion.

Practical tips for pushing back on othering:

  • Create an inclusive team culture by cultivating all of the pillars and practices outlined in this article.
  • Explore identities for your team and the individuals who work on it. There are many processes for this type of exploration. In her article, Countering Otherness, leadership coach Sabah Alam Hydari, outlines a four-part inclusiveness loop process that creates powerful team and leadership bonds. You can explore it for your team here.

Psychological Safety Pillar 8: Hold High Standards / Performance and Psychological Safety as Both Important

You don’t have to choose between excellence and psychological safety on your team; you can’t afford to lose either. Make it known in your team manifesto, that high standards include both your job performance AND how you treat and interact with others. Set ground rules and definitions for each parameter and stick to them.

You can’t focus on one at the risk of losing the other – both dimensions play an important role in your team’s success.

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her master’s degree in organizational leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. Learn more about Melissa here.

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As an ICF Certified Executive Coach, Melissa partners with leaders to develop their executive presence, strategic and systems thinking, resilience, communication skills, and influence in order to reach their goals. Melissa is passionate about supporting leaders and teams on their growth journeys toward greater impact, more collaborative teams, and stronger results.