It’s up to leaders to foster psychological safety so that their teams excel, innovate, and meet the demands of an increasingly volatile business landscape. Individuals can also contribute to a thriving, creative workplace culture by forming trusted relationships. High-performing teams require psychological safety. Without it, teams don’t feel safe to share their ideas or opinions, especially when they have a new way of approaching something.
Psychological safety is critical to developing a culture where all members feel able and ready to do their best work. Regardless of your role, you can help create a workplace environment where everyone feels excited to contribute.
What is Psychological Safety?
Originally coined by Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School, psychological safety is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” Psychological safety also includes being able to show up in any space as your authentic self and be seen, heard, and accepted. According to Donald Thompson, CEO and Co-Founder of The Diversity Movement, psychological safety is synonymous with trust, and the trust built within an organization is just as, if not more important than, the trust built between an organization and its customers.
Simply put, psychological safety is the feeling that one can share their honest input without fear of retaliation, criticism, or ridicule.
Some indicators that your team has fostered psychological safety include
- People feel comfortable owning their mistakes
- Ideas are shared openly
- The team experiences increased innovation
- Failure is viewed as a learning experience
- Trust is established between teammates
- Unique skills are valued
Some indicators that your team struggles with psychological safety include
- People fear making mistakes and facing the consequences
- People talk about each other behind their backs
- Teammates blame each other
- There is a lack of trust between team members
- Team members compete with each other for attention or resources
- People are unable to share their ideas
When considering the indicators above, it’s clear why psychological safety is critical to productive teams. When teams work together toward the best possible outcome, team cohesion increases, output accelerates, and customers and clients are satisfied.
Methods to Create Psychological Safety
There are five key methods leaders and individuals can use to cultivate psychological safety on their team.
Approach conflict as a solvable problem. Remember, it’s your team versus the problem, not you versus your team members. When issues or conflict arise, take a moment to identify what the core issue is, then work to solve it together. For example, digital communications are being misinterpreted. Rather than blaming one person for creating confusing emails, brainstorm ways to make sure communications are more clear, perhaps by relying more on oral communication or utilizing a template for certain types of emails.
Get curious. Rather than assuming you know the reason for a team member’s behavior, get curious. If they’ve missed their deadlines over the past month, ask why and if there’s anything you can do to help.
Hold empathy for others. When we disagree with someone, it’s easy to “otherize” them, but remember, we are all human. That means we all have values, opinions, hopes, fears, needs, and wishes. Keep this in mind during challenging conversations, by showing empathy, assuming good intent, and trying to understand other perspectives.
Be prepared for people to react. Especially if you are raising a contentious point or engaging in a difficult conversation, think through two or three ways people might react and prepare for them. How will you respond to people who object or disengage?
Ask for feedback. If you are having a difficult conversation, such as providing critical feedback to an employee or peer, be sure to ask how you could improve your communication. How did the other person feel in response to what you had to say? Could it have been said more effectively?
How to Measure Psychological Safety
Organizational and individual team leaders should measure psychological safety regularly. This measurement can be incorporated into large organizational surveys and/or as part of team pulse surveys. Make sure to communicate who is conducting and reviewing the survey, why the survey is being deployed, and how the data will be used.
If you find that ratings of psychological safety have declined over the last year, figure out why, and take action to remediate any distrust. If psychological safety has increased, that’s a great sign that you are doing things right.
Below are some sample questions from Sparkbay and The Fearless Organization to ask individuals regarding their team and the full organization. It’s recommended that you choose up to seven questions from each set and measure agreement on a sliding scale.
Sample Questions for Teams
- My coworkers welcome opinions different from their own.
- I feel safe to take a risk on this team.
- On this team, I understand what is expected of me.
- People keep each other informed about work-related issues within the team.
- Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
- People on this team never reject others for being different.
- It is easy to ask other members of this team for help.
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.
- No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
- In this team, people talk about mistakes and ways to learn and improve from them.
- I won’t receive retaliation or criticism if I admit an error or mistake.
Sample Questions for Organizations
- People at this organization are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
- I feel safe to take a risk in this organization.
- It is difficult to ask other members of this organization for help.
- No one at this organization would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
- Working with members of this organization, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.
- If I make a mistake at this organization, it is often held against me.
- People at this organization sometimes reject others for being different.
Psychological safety is a prerequisite for effective teams in the modern workforce. Employees must feel able to contribute fully and as their authentic selves. Learn more about fostering innovative teams through inclusive leadership in our guidebook, Inclusive Leadership: Tips and Tactics to Create Stronger Teams and Greater Innovation.