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9 Ways to Increase Your Team’s Psychological Safety

Increase team performance by staying curious, finding strength in vulnerability, and co-creating an authentic, high-trust team culture.

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Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

The growing body of research on team performance and organizational culture (foundational are Google’s Project Aristotle and Amy Edmondson’s research) tells us that the primary predictor of great performance in teams is a high level of psychological safety – especially in complex situations of uncertainty and interdependence.

High levels of psychological safety (the social belief that we will not be judged or criticized for our ideas, mistakes, or being our real selves) are linked to the inclusion of diverse thinking and increased innovation, collaboration, engagement, and trust (meaning faster, better work with better results).  While the corporate world has a tendency to think that one hour of work is equal to another, we know that especially with knowledge workers, the discretionary effort (both quantity and quality), better teamwork and innovation, and quality of thinking and decision making are critical to project and organizational success.

As a simple illustration, think about a time in which you, or someone you know, was absolutely unashamedly their best, most authentic self in their workplace or place of learning, and as they voiced an (out of the ordinary) idea or flagged a (possibly unlikely) risk, they were cut down by a team member or someone in power. That is a lack of, or opposite to, psychological safety. And yet we need the whacky ideas, the outlandish risks and the collaboration of a team that results from different thoughts working together. If you’re a woman or part of a minority in your workforce, you may find that this happens to you more than it does the majority – inclusion is better measured by how difference is accepted every day than by what the company policy says.

While it doesn’t really roll off the tongue (some teams, when hearing about it for the first time, balk at the word ‘psychological’) it’s an easy sell. But even once we’ve got everyone hooked on the idea, it’s more difficult in practice than in theory. This is largely because it depends on our behaviors; not only the big, obvious, public ones but the micro-behaviors. These are as subtle as the tone of our voice over the phone or in an email, the way in which we stand, and how we include (or exclude) others in meetings, at lunch, or at work socials. This means it’s almost impossible to fake. I have observed project teams interrupt each other and put each other down while speaking about psychological safety, and others whose job it is to increase it act in ways that shrink, instead of grow, the people around them.

Increasing a team or organization’s psychological safety takes more than just talking about it (although awareness is a fantastic start). While it forms naturally in some teams, it takes a bit more work in others, and there’s always scope for ongoing improvement through times of change and ambiguity. To make meaningful change and impact your team’s culture, start with these nine actionable steps, making them part of your team’s day-to-day norms and habits.

Frame work as a continuous learning opportunity

In life and in work, we either succeed or we learn. If we are able to reframe work as learning experiences that go well or teach us what to do differently in the future rather than as a failure, it suddenly becomes easier to talk about what went wrong. In Amy Edmondson’s Tedx Talk she suggests that we “frame work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.” If we have an atmosphere of high psychological safety and are held accountable to stretch targets and goals we are likely to be in what she terms a learning zone (rather than the anxiety zone of high accountability and low psychological safety, which negatively impacts our performance).

Demonstrate vulnerability

In Brene Brown’s Netflix special, The Call to Courage, she compares vulnerability in leadership to a snowball that grows larger in size and force as it rolls downhill. If we as leaders and team members are able to display the vulnerability we would like to see, it provides tacit permission to others to do the same, and becomes part of the team culture.

Co-create an intentional culture

Most of the time, we don’t think much about our team culture. We know it’s there, but it’s nebulous and can be difficult to pin down. However, if we are not intentional about the type of culture – the behaviors, rituals, habits, and norms we want to see – the culture will default to the strongest influence. Additionally, co-creating culture allows a diverse team to agree and decide on mutual expectations, which reduces the possibility of confusion and conflict. To create your team culture, gather the team members together (face-to-face is best, but this can be done virtually too) and discuss the purpose and vision of the team (Simon Sinek’s ‘why‘). Next, decide on the behaviors that the team would like to see as part of the team (for example, cross-border collaboration, active listening, kindness) and ground rules (these should be actionable – for example, a weekly coffee sit-down, no emails on weekends, a silly code word if someone really needs help urgently). If the team is very diverse, it’s a good idea to chat about different approaches to and expectations of teamwork such as time, communication, and sharing knowledge.

Stay curious

If we ask questions to really, really learn the answer (instead of leading the other person to the specific answer we want or waiting to jump in with our own opinion), the people around us are more likely to be able to talk freely and say what they think. Often described as ‘child-like curiosity’, questions should be posed to really learn what someone knows and thinks, and probe into the answers for deeper understanding, rather than so that we can provide our own answer.

Verbalize instead of acting out

We all have bad days, and times when we don’t feel as on top of our game or our best selves and it’s easy for ‘amygdala hijacks‘ to become the norm as our flight, fight or fright responses react to the stressors around us, lashing out at perceived threats in an attempt to keep us safe. If we can slow our thinking enough to take a few deep breaths, gain perspective (a walk around the block helps, and it’s a great way to have a meeting), and ensure that we are making the best possible decisions. then we and our teams don’t feel as stressed. If you’ve overreacted or lashed out, start by apologizing (see point eight) and put your feelings into words. In line with showing vulnerability, there is nothing wrong with saying ‘I’m feeling tired/stressed/not myself today’, and ‘I need some quiet time alone’ or ‘I’d appreciate a chat over a cup of coffee.’ If you and other team members are able to do this it will be easier to know when support is needed or someone should be given attention to or left alone, and misunderstandings that arise due to poor communication or conflict situations are less likely to occur.

Assume good intent

I’m not sure about you, but pretty much everybody I know wants to do a good job, is doing their best to do so, and cares about other people. In virtual or dispersed teams there’s always a tendency to shift blame onto the ‘other’. Cross-regional teams made up of people in different offices often other by saying things like, ‘LA never submits on time’ or ‘New York is always chasing me up before the deadline’. However, if we can remember that we’re on the same team, working towards a common goal, and get to know each other, we start learning that others’ intentions are generally good and that they have challenges and pressures we don’t have full sight of. If you’ve ever received an email that you thought was unnecessarily pointed and sharp, only to find out later that the sender’s intention was not negative at all – I sure have –  assuming good intent (until proven otherwise) is a good mantra to follow. 

Allow everybody to come to work

‘Of course everybody is allowed at work’, we cry. ‘Showing up is an essential part of the job!’. While people may be present, how much of their authentic selves are we not only tolerating but celebrating in the workplace? As knowledge work requires creativity, critical thinking, and innovation, we don’t just want bodies in seats. Instead, we want to create safe workplaces in which people are their best selves. This obviously applies to demographic differences (gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality) but even more to diversity of thought. How inclusive are we of people who work in a different way, have different skills, or think differently to us? There is a risk that we become more inclusive of demographic diversity only as long as team members fit the mold in the way they talk, think, and work. As team members and team leaders, we are all responsible for creating the norms that allow, perpetuate or encourage both negative and positive behaviors.

Say ‘I’m sorry’

We’re human! Every day we juggle countless priorities, some of them conflicting, in project, corporate, and community roles. We communicate through technologies and in person, all day long, with people both in the same room and in different countries. We take in a huge amount of information, filter, file and respond to it, and that’s just at work – add in the mix the roles and responsibilities of our personal lives and it’s easy to see how mistakes are inevitable. Trying and failing, communicating too quickly or not at all, reacting in a way you’re not proud of – it’s going to happen. Saying a sincere ‘I’m sorry’ and committing to learn from the experience to better shape the next interaction (see point one) helps those around us to say sorry too, learn from it, and move on.

Have fun!

If we’re not having fun, why are we here? The more fun your team has, the more they’ll enjoy their work together. Team members with competing priorities and who report to various people will naturally be drawn to the work and teams that offer a positive experience and safe place to be – think carrot, rather than stick. Having fun also allows team members to get to know each other as unique individuals rather than email automatons, and therefore strengthens trust and cohesion.

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