Simple Ways to Build Psychological Safety on Your Teams

Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

In 2015, Google published results from a two-year study on what makes a great team. The study found it’s not necessarily the teams with the smartest people or those who don’t make mistakes that make the best teams. The best teams have the highest degree of psychological safety. 

According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who coined the term, “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

According to the study, psychological safety is the most important factor that distinguishes a high-functioning team. In addition, Google identified four other factors that make great teams successful: dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact.

  • Dependability: All members of a team need to complete their tasks on time and to the expected high-quality standards. Without that, the entire group will struggle, even if some are willing to pick up the slack.  
  • Structure and Clarity: Employees need to clearly understand their roles and responsibilities within the team, and how the overall goals of the organization impact their work. Without this, it is difficult for each team member to fully understand who is responsible for what and how the team’s work ties into the broader objectives.  
  • Meaning: The work of the team needs to be personally important to each team member. When an individual is personally and emotionally connected to his or her work, he or she is more likely to excel and have higher engagement.
  • Impact: When teams feel their work matters, they are not only more productive, they are more invested in the team’s outcome and more likely to do what it takes to complete their work with high quality.

Getting Started

Organizations that foster a culture where people are comfortable making mistakes, learning, and taking risks, are innovation driven. How can you build psychological safety in your teams? How can you bring these concepts to light within your organization without overhauling the entire culture from the top?

Here are some examples of ways to build safety within your teams. Note that many of these do not require change initiatives or executive support. These are simple measures you, as a leader, can implement for your teams:  

  • Break the golden rule: The golden rule says treat others as you want to be treated. In psychologically safe environments, the opposite needs to be true. Treat others as theywant to be treated. When you meet people where they are, connections form and trust is built.
  • Acknowledge mistakes: Whether you are an individual contributor or a leader, lead by example. Acknowledge your mistakes. Tell others when you have made a mistake and look for their input on how you could have done things differently. By starting the process of owning and learning from errors, you make it safe for others to begin to discuss their mistakes, as well.
  • Listen: Active listening means you focus on what the other person is saying. It’s about minimizing distractions.  
  • Silence: Be OK with silence. Don’t feel the need to respond immediately. Let yourself think and reflect before you react to someone.
  • Pre-mortem: Have a pre-mortem before projects. Brainstorm about everything that could go wrong so you can plan. It makes talking about failures less scary.
  • Celebrate small failures: Innovation is fueled by failing small to win big. Encourage failures and then learn from these mistakes.
  • Ask for feedback in front of others: Thank the giver of the feedback. It makes receiving and requesting feedback a comfortable process.
  • Ask open-ended questions: This indicates you are looking to gain a better understanding of the idea, not just a yes or no answer.
  • Let others speak: As a leader, speak last. Making sure everyone contributes and fosters collaboration and trust.
  • No bad ideas: Do not ever shut down the opinions of others. Ask open-ended questions to learn more. It is OK to not agree with an idea, but shutting down ideas makes it much less likely others will feel comfortable bringing up their ideas.
  • Get personal: Start meetings off with a genuine interest in what others are doing outside of work. For the first few minutes, chat, laugh, and set the tone that people can be authentic.
  • Quiet brainstorming: Not everyone likes to brainstorm out loud in a group setting—especially those who are more introverted. Have teams do quiet brainstorming and then have each person share their results. This allows everyone to be part of the conversation.
  • Reflect often: At team meetings, after milestones, reflect. Discuss what went well, what could be improved, and what is learned. When there is a failure, do not blame individuals. Reframe as learning.
  • Whole self: Acknowledge that everyone brings their entire self to work. We all need to meet our colleagues where they are all. Understand different experiences, motivations, and passions.
  • Stories: Our brains love stories. Start every meeting with a story—yours or someone else’s. Stories bring to life actions, tactics, and plans.
  • Team outline: As soon as a team forms, outline key team agreements. This is a simple way to document the goals of the team, what each person is bringing to the project, expectations of each team member, and logistics of the team. It helps to facilitate meetings and team structure and holds people accountable.

Psychological safety is a key attribute of the culture of a team and of an organization that drives innovation, productivity, and results. By fostering a culture where people can express their ideas and speak their truth, you enable each employee to bring his or her authentic self to work. You allow people to be vulnerable, thereby building connections within the organization. You drive authenticity, inclusiveness, and respect for each person. You create a culture where people love coming to work and do what it takes for the organization to be successful. 

Lynne Levy is a Product evangelist at Workhuman. She is focused onseeding the market to drive the human side of the future-of-work. This includes understanding the market evolution, pain points today and tomorrow, and how product strategy can fit into this market evolution.



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