How to Boost Performance by Increasing Psychological Safety in Your Team

Though many companies and managers go to extraordinary lengths to boost their teams’ performance, only a fraction seem to accept this simple fact: high performing teams require psychological safety. 

From the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger to the attack on Pearl Harbor, history is full of really smart people who didn’t feel safe enough to speak up and avert a crisis.

Study after study indicates that a lack of psychological safety breeds fear, risk-aversion, groupthink, low engagement and ultimately leads to low performance and terrible results.

So what is psychological safety?

Harvard Business School Professor, Amy Edmondson, defines psychological safety in the following way:

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

From Edmondson’s research to Google’s project Aristotle, the conclusions are consistent: psychological safety enables open dialogue and honesty, supports the diversity of thought, allows for risk-taking and generates creativity.

It contributes to creating an environment where experimentation is not only accepted but encouraged. In such an environment, people speak openly about the mistakes they’ve made and what they’ve learned as a result.
In the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world we live in, these behaviours are crucial for competing in the market and staying relevant in the rapidly changing business landscape.

Is it safe on your team?

But what if you are not sure if you have an issue with psychological safety in your team in the first place? The six statements below can help:

1. We respect and value everyone’s contributions equally.
2. It’s natural and expected to ask others for help or for clarification.
3. We discuss difficult issues openly and without ever holding back.
4. We readily accept (or even celebrate) our differences.
5. It’s perfectly ok (or even expected) to take risks.
6. Everyone openly admits to making mistakes.

If you (and your team members) can look at each of the statements above and say: “Yes, that’s definitely us!”, no need to read further! You already know how to create psychological safety.
If, however, not all of the statements are an accurate description of what’s currently going on in your team, then read on…

Creating a psychologically safe environment

While most of us are sold on the idea of creating a psychologically safe environment, very few are clear on how to go about creating one.

Here are three areas that you can focus on to start creating a psychologically safe environment for your team:

1. Be the role model

If you are the team manager, building psychological safety starts with you. To lay the foundations for a safe environment, you’ll need to be the first one to:

  • Acknowledge your own fallibility, share your own mistakes and allow everyone to learn from them.
  • Ask for feedback and advice.
  • Be curious and ask a lot of questions – this way you demonstrate that you value others opinions and that not having all the answers is the most natural thing to do.

2. Shift your focus

Creating a psychologically safe environment requires a shift of focus:

  • From efficiency to effectiveness. Encourage your team members to look for the best ways to achieve the desired results, instead of blindly going down the efficiency route. Focusing on efficiency has been proven to discourage dissent, creative thinking and problem-solving. Plus, executing a faulty plan as efficiently as possible has never benefited anyone. Except for the competition.
  • From compliance to commitment. Compliance can lead to blindly following arbitrary rules that don’t make sense to anyone. Commitment is achieved by discussing the “who”, “why” and the “what” – before collectively getting to the “how”. When your team members are clear on your team purpose and have a say in the conversation about solutions, you make it safe for them to engage and meaningful to participate.
  • From harmony to constructive debate. Many teams value harmony above all else. True psychological safety, however, is not about agreeing with each other – it’s about being able to express your views freely and knowing that they will be acknowledged, respected and considered by others. Your role as a manager is to encourage constructive debate and make sure that all points of view are considered when making important decisions.
  • From outcomes to learning. Yes, it would be great to win that big account or finish the project on time and on budget. But there is one thing that is even more important than the actual outcome – what you are learning from it. In the long run, it won’t matter whether you experienced a success or a failure today. What will matter, though, is whether you have learned from it.

3. Start sweating the small stuff

When it comes to creating a feeling of psychological safety, remind yourself of the broken windows theory – it’s often the seemingly unimportant details that cause people to feel unsafe. So make sure that you have some unwritten rules in place:

  • We don’t interrupt each other.
  • Everyone gets an opportunity to voice their opinion on the important issues (we draw people out if they’ve been quiet).
  • Nobody gets shamed and blamed (never, ever!)
  • No questions are considered “stupid”.

You get the idea.

Putting in the work to create psychological safety in your team will pay off in better work climate, lower levels of stress and burn-out rates, increased engagement, better solutions to complex problems and, ultimately, in better overall results.
If you are serious about your people, your career and your business, making your workplace psychologically safe is one of the best ways to ensure success.

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