Psychological Safety: Unlocking the Best of Your Team
How willing is your team to share their mistakes, their feelings, their struggles? How willing are you… as a leader? Do you notice people refraining from sharing certain information out of fear? Are you often reluctant to display vulnerability? If you answered yes to some of these questions, you might want to consider adopting a conversational structure that promotes psychological safety.
Safety First… Psychological Safety That Is
All of these years working with leaders, teams and in my own organizations, gave me an ability to walk into an office and sense the level of fear and the absence or presence of psychological safety. A term coined by professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety refers to the belief that you won’t be punished if you make a mistake. In the words of Amy, it’s “being able to show and employ one’s own self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career. It’s the shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. In safe teams, people feel accepted and respected.
Why it Matters
Why it matters seems obvious. Without safety, a team doesn’t quite work just like an athlete can’t run his best time with spikes inside his shoes, right? Because it hurts, and as humans, we are hard-wired for self-protection.
Especially in a work setting people are very cautious of how others perceive them, their competence, their attitudes, and behaviors. And most would rather go under the radar than risk being labeled negatively.
According to a study by New York University professors Frances Milliken and Elizabeth Morrison, the two most frequently mentioned reasons for remaining silent at work were fear of being labeled negatively and fear of damaging work relationships.
Surprisingly enough, people are not just keeping quiet about issues that are understandably difficult to approach like failures, harassment, or a supervisor’s performance, they’re also remaining silent about how to improve processes or avoid errors. This goes to show that without psychological safety, by default people will not share the bad news or the good ideas.
A poll conducted by Gallup,, found that only 3 in 10 employees strongly agree with the statement that their opinions count at work. Gallup estimated that by “moving the ratio to 6 in 10 employees, organizations could realize a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents, and a 12% increase in productivity.”
In 2017 Google set out to understand what makes a good team, the study revealed that psychological safety was the most important quality in determining a team’s success.
The benefits of psychological safety have been well established in numerous studies. Here are some of the key findings:
It predicts worker engagement,
Promotes mental health,
Leads to lower turnover,
It's correlated to the commitment towards an organization,
Helps people speak up despite a lack of confidence,
When performance standards and psychological safety are both high, it creates a learning and high-performance zone.
Without psychological safety having a team of A stars does not ensure superior performance. On the other hand, we can’t say that psychological safety guarantees it either, but we can definitely state that it is a prerequisite for high performance.
How Does it Work?
The best way to promote psychological safety and scale it in our organizations is to have leaders developing and displaying within heir teams the type of behavior they want to see throughout their organization.
If psychological safety is having the candor to openly share ideas, concerns and mistakes, creating a culture of learning that is modeled from the top-down will most likely cascade those types of behaviors throughout the organization.
However, a Mckinsey Global Survey conducted in the midst of the pandemic, showed that very few leaders regularly demonstrate the positive behaviors that create this climate in their organizations.
If people by default will choose silence, and if most leaders don’t model the positive behaviors that promote this type of safety, it’s imperative that organizations invest in leadership development programs that address very specific and often overlooked skills.
Mckinsey research found that the most important driver of psychological team safety is having a positive team climate, in which team member’s value one another’s contributions, sincerely care about each other’s well-being and have input about how to get work done.
So what type of leadership supports psychological safety and what specific behaviors need to be modeled to create healthy and safe workplaces?
Making it Work
Out of the four established styles of leadership, consultative and supportive leadership behaviors promote psychological safety, and the command-and-control authoritative style is detrimental to it.
Consultative leaders actively seek input from their team members, and take their ideas and perspectives into consideration on issues that affect them. Supportive leaders demonstrate concern and support for their team member’s overall well-being.
As we’ve mentioned before, the most effective way to instill a climate of psychological safety is to model the corresponding behaviors from the top-down. That is, to train team leaders on the skills that promote positive team climate.
Skills that promote open dialogue, deep listening, offering support, empathy, connecting people to their resources and resourcefulness. These are the things that make people feel seen, understood, accepted, valued and connected.
The pandemic caused a level of disruption so high that we are all operating in the realm of our emotions, unless leaders learn to address their team member’s emotions in a way that fosters safety and resilience, they risk facing a depleted and burned out workforce, that simply cannot cope or whether the storm.
Here are some practical ways to promote psychological safety in your team:
- Show them you care about them as individuals not just as a resource, ask questions about their lives and help them meet their needs during these challenging times.
- Actively listen. Without interruptions and giving them your full attention, that demonstrates that you value them and that what they have to say matters.
- Show vulnerability. People take their cues of what’s valued in an organization from what leaders do and don’t do, say and don’t say, you can’t expect people to share concerns and their struggles if you never do.
- Tell people what they can and can’t expect during these times. Any way that you can lessen the uncertainty is helpful, even if it’s bad news, like a pay cut.
- Practice empathy. Sometimes less is more. A simple: I understand that you feel this way can go a long way in providing support and relief.
- Don’t disclose personal information from other team members. People need to trust that the sensitive information they share is safe with you, or else it’s very unlikely they will talk to you about it.
These are simples ways to plant the seeds of safety. But now, more than ever organizations need to invest in leadership development that makes work a safe and healthy place if they want to make to through the tough times so they can thrive in the new times.
Work can definitely be a beautiful place where we get to share the best of us and meet each other’s contributions with honesty, kindness and respect. And it starts with feeling safe.