Have you ever wondered how you can improve team performance? Or how to create a high-performing culture? To improve team performance, one of the most important things you can do is create psychological safety. When there is safety in the workplace, individuals and teams perform better, creating a high-performing culture and improving bottom-line results

What is psychological safety?

According to the Center for Creative Leadership, “psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

Your leadership plays a critical role in determining how much psychological safety and trust there is within a team. Leaders need to help team members develop high-quality relationships with each other, allow for team learning, and create a team climate where ideas and diverse opinions are safely explored, discussed, and debated. This type of team dynamic creates a learning culture that improves team development and team dynamics.

The importance of trust

When people can trust that they will not be demeaned, their ideas ignored, or threaten their job security; they feel safer. When people feel safe, they’re more likely to take risks, be more creative, and contribute their best work.

Amy Edmonson’s study on psychological safety found that psychological safety is “a key condition for learning.” Her study demonstrated that psychological safety was vital because it helped team members “lean in” and feel comfortable taking risks. The more comfortable team members felt in sharing their ideas, the more likely they would contribute to their success.

Creating a culture of psychological safety can help teams achieve their business goals. Teams that feel safe taking risks and sharing information are more productive and innovative.

How psychological safety is undermined

Psychological safety takes time to create and is easily broken. Establishing a mutual and interpersonal trust culture is essential to create psychological safety.

Lack of trust

As an executive coach and facilitator of effective teamwork, one of the number one killers of psychological safety is the lack of trust between the leader or team members. Something I’ve learned as a consultant is that if you want trust and psychological safety in your team, you must talk about the issues that prevent trust and psychological safety.

Breaking trust is not complicated. People break trust easily without realizing how their behavior impacts trust, safety, and team performance.

Dismissing ideas

One of the quickest ways to undermine psychological safety is criticizing or punishing someone for taking a risk to speak up, for disagreeing, or voicing a dissenting view. I’ve witnessed many team meetings where ideas are discarded with superficial comments. Comments such as, “that’s not the way we do it here,” or “I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” or “you’re wrong” send the message that it’s not safe.

Leaders need to understand that risk-taking from an employee perspective entails having the courage to speak up. If ideas are discounted, discarded, or dismissed, psychological safety and trust disappear.

Fearing failure

As an executive coach, I hear leadership say we need agility, adaptability, flexibility, and innovation to succeed. Yet, out-of-the-box thinking is often contradicted due to fear of making mistakes. Leaders and team members create an unsafe climate that is more straightforward than dismissing ideas; sometimes, leaders don’t ask for ideas and input.

Lack of acknowledgment

It is critical to remember that sometimes just speaking up is risk-taking. When team members speak up, it is vital that leaders listen, reflect, acknowledge, and act. Listening is crucial to creating a climate of psychological safety and trust. When leaders don’t listen, or worse, don’t act on team members’ ideas, it sends the message that what group members have to say is unimportant.

Why psychological safety is important

Creating psychological safety and trust should be a business priority. “There’s no team without trust,” says Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google. Project Aristotle was a 2-year study on team performance, psychological safety, and trust. The results revealed that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety. (Harvard Business Review)

Elements of psychological safety

Psychological safety is created by setting a positive example. Leaders do this by demonstrating that it is okay to experiment and make mistakes without fear of repercussion. Leaders can improve team effectiveness by creating a fearless organization where mistakes are viewed as learning experiences.

1. Foster psychological safety and trust

Team members need to be willing to speak up without fear of repercussion to foster psychological safety and trust. This is in direct opposition to a traditional business culture where risk-taking is discouraged and punished. This is why risk-taking and mistakes need to be viewed as learning experiences.

2. Create a learning environment

When mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities, team members are more likely to share information and offer suggestions. To do this, encourage risk-taking and create a climate where it is safe to take risks.

3. Improve interpersonal trust

Leaders can improve interpersonal trust by being transparent, authentic, and consistent in their actions. It was said that Gandhi created trust and followership because what he thought, said, and did were all the same.

Improving interpersonal trust means admitting mistakes and encouraging others to be direct and tell the truth even if it is not popular.

4. Be consistent

Too often, organizational leadership will espouse a set of values and beliefs and demonstrate behaviors inconsistent with those values and beliefs. Many team leaders will say they have an open-door policy but shoot the messenger when bad news arrives.

Using psychological safety to improve team performance

Peak performing teams have a culture of psychological safety. You want to create a sense of teamwork and mutual support within the team and demonstrate concern for the welfare of team members.

1. Caring is essential

When sincere mutual support and caring is present, this encourages team members to support one another. About 10-years ago, I worked with a team that had a lot of internal conflicts. People didn’t trust each other. They competed against each other rather than support one another. They built silos. They blamed one another rather than working as a team.

It turns out that in past years, team members broke trust with each other by not delivering on their promises to each other. This created a cascade effect of over-promising and under-delivering. As a result, they were not as efficient as possible, and mistakes were rampant. Everyone was out for themselves. So instead of supporting each other, everyone was out for themselves.

What was missing was sincere caring about one another.

“Psychological safety at work doesn’t mean that everybody is nice all the time. It means that you embrace conflict and you speak up, knowing that your team has your back, and you have their backs.” According to Dr. Amy Edmondson, “people must be allowed to voice half-finished thoughts, ask questions out of left field, and brainstorm out loud to create a culture that truly innovates.”

2. The importance of transparency

Leaders need to set the ground rules of openness, honesty, and transparency. This is not easy because direct honesty isn’t necessarily valued. But straightforward honesty is essential for building trust.

As a result of internal competition, team members stopped telling the truth. They weren’t honest with their ability to meet deadlines. They withheld information from each other to get ahead.

3. Story-telling

In my example, to help the team break through their trust issues and improve psychological safety, we had to talk through all the sticky topics of blame and broken promises. As a result, there were many negative stories about the team and the culture. Each team member had to deeply listen to the stories and their negative impact on each other. Just as stories can create a strong culture, stories can deeply undermine a good culture.

Listening is essential to story-telling and for building a psychologically safe climate. Listening helps to improve team dynamics through knowledge sharing, which builds stronger social relationships. The more leaders and team members listen to each other, the more interpersonal trust is built, paving the way for team psychological safety.

4. The power of forgiveness

Additionally, they had to forgive each other for their mistakes sincerely. During a team session where we dug into all the issues, the team recognized the damage they created expressed their deep regret for the culture they co-created together. This expression of regret created the foundation of support. They made a promise to each other to support one another. They created a motto, “I’ve got you.” This helped the team recognize that they still supported one another when they had disagreements, which is ordinary and necessary.

Within 6-months of this trust-building session. The team far surpassed their goals, and within 12-months, three were promoted to higher positions.


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4-tips to create psychological safety at work

So how can you create a culture of psychological safety? Here are several things you can do.

1. Identify

Identify the issues that prevent trust and safety. Then create a safe environment for discussion. In our team sessions, safety must be created before discussing the problems of non-safety. We establish ground rules of behavior during our team process before we begin exploring the issues of distrust and non-safety.

2. Encourage

Develop a process where team members can share the wildest to the most practical ideas for managing conflict, problem-solving, or creating action plans. When you make it fun, people’s defenses go down, and creativity goes up.

3. Make it safe to fail

One way is to create a culture where it’s safe to fail. Leaders should not punish team members for taking risks and making mistakes. Instead, when an error is made, take the opportunity to mentor and coach that person. This helps your team members to grow and develop their skills.

Leaders should encourage people to share their input and analysis without judgment or ridicule. Leaders can create a culture where feedback is offered frequently and constructively.

Team members must feel safe enough to provide honest criticism if something isn’t working out as planned, so there are no surprises down the road. Then they can decide together which ideas to implement.

4. Grow

Create a learning environment. I like using the phrase “replay the tape.” Replaying the tape creates an environment where people can safely evaluate what happened and what can be done differently. When teams replay the video, with the context that feedback is designed to help each other grow and fulfill their potential, learning occurs.

At the same time, each team member must be open to feedback and avoid being defensive. This is why the ground rules of behavior are critical.

Use the Circle of Trust and Empowerment™

Leaders need to empower others. To create trust and empowerment, you need to do four things:

  1. Build capabilities
  2. Assign responsibility
  3. Provide the authority
  4. Hold people accountable

Build capabilities

Empowerment starts with ensuring team members are trained and developed to handle more and do more. Training and development provide the foundation for empowering your people.

You want to build your teams’ skill level. While it is necessary to have a formal development plan, it is equally important to help your team members actualize what they have learned. Help them grow and develop and apply their learnings. This will make it much easier for you to let go and empower.

Assign responsibility

Clarity on expectations regarding the role and the objectives sets the stage for success. Once clarity is established, assign responsibility. When somebody is given responsibility, they understand their measures of success. When your team understands the importance of their role and function, linking meaning and purpose to what they do daily motivates people to give their best. People need to feel that what they are doing is making a difference.

“My leader let me do my thing. They believed in me. They mentored me. They gave me feedback to improve. They trust me. They empowered me.”

Give people the authority

Give people the authority to do their jobs and make decisions. This is probably the number one area where leaders make mistakes. Leaders give the responsibility but not the authority. Authority allows team members to take ownership of their work and makes them feel more in control. Giving people authority is empowerment.

In my upcoming book, I asked clients what the number one thing their favorite leader did was. To a person, they said, “My leader let me do my thing. They believed in me. They mentored me. They gave me feedback to improve. They trust me. They empowered me.”

Hold people accountable

Punishing people causes them to stop taking risks and not suggest new ideas or changes in the future. However, it is important to hold people accountable for their results.

“Psychological safety is not at odds with having tough conversations, it is what allows us to have tough conversations.” Amy Edmondson.

When you give feedback, it is essential to tell people what they are doing well and to let them know when they are dropping the ball. This helps your team members improve their performance and grow. When you fail to speak up about what is working well or what can be improved, they assume everything is fine, and nothing changes.

Giving feedback lets people know they are valued and what they are doing is appreciated.

Have patience

Give team members the time they need to develop their best ideas. This includes not putting too much pressure on people to deliver immediate results. Creating psychological safety isn’t easy. It requires dedication, time, and effort. However, the benefits are worth the effort.

Are you Ready

If you want to take your team to the next level of effectiveness, or if you want to become a better leader contact Susan Robertson at [email protected]

Author: Susan Robertson is the Founder and CEO of Linceis Conscious Business. She is the author of REAL Leadership: Waken to Wisdom. Her next book, REAL Culture, 4 Steps to Build Your Competitive Advantage, will be published in March 2022. She is an executive coach and works with executives to transform culture and helps managers transform into leaders and leaders into executives. You can reach her at [email protected]

High Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety, and Here’s How to Create it. https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it

Edmonson, Amy. The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.

Psychological Safety and the Critical Role of Leadership Development. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/psychological-safety-and-the-critical-role-of-leadership-development

How Psychological Safety Impacts Team Performance: Mediating Role of Efficacy and Learning Behavior https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01581/full