6 Ways Successful Leaders Create Psychological Safety on Their Teams

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k
June 12, 2024 at 3:46PM UTC

For over two years, Google’s People Operations researched the answer to the question, “What makes a Google team effective?” In 2015, they published their findings, revealing five dynamics that make successful teams successful. Heading the list was psychological safety. What exactly does this mean, and how can other organizations prioritize it?

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety means that employees feel comfortable and confident taking risks, asking questions and otherwise engaging in the workplace without fear of ridicule, punishment or embarrassment. At some organizations, employees may “play it safe” in order to protect themselves; psychological safety allows them to have more positive interactions and feel that they’re not being judged.

Why is psychological safety important?

The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Fredrickson found that emotions such as trust, confidence and curiosity make us more motivated, resilient and creative, among other attributes, according to the Harvard Business Review. This suggests that not only does psychological safety benefit individuals but the entire organization. 

It means employees are more involved with their work because they know they can voice their opinions and take risks without facing criticism. They’re also more likely to be vulnerable and admit when they’re wrong because psychological safety fosters a culture of awareness and forgiveness. This extends across the organization, from entry-level positions to C-suite executives.

How to create psychological safety at work.

A 2018 Pew Research Center survey reveals that 89% of adults believe business leaders must create a “safe and respectful workplace” for employees. How does this translate into action?

1. Start from the top.

Leaders must demonstrate that risks and questions are welcome within the organization by setting an example for the rest of the team. Employees will see the behavior and hopefully emulate it. By the same token, managers should admit mistakes, as well as encourage employees to come to them with feedback and questions. 

2. Avoid casting blame.

Everyone makes mistakes. But rather than scolding employees for their mistakes, ask questions to better understand their thinking and work together to come up with solutions. This will help you both resolve the issue and prevent it from happening in the future. 

3. Approach people with empathy.

You may disagree with someone, but she’s a person, just like you, and one who deserves respect. Adopting an empathetic mindset, where your first impulse is one of understanding, can contribute to the psychological safety of your entire organization. Moreover, remember to listen first before immediately jumping in with your opinion to ensure that your employee feels heard.

4. Ask for employee input. 

Jake Herway, a culture and change subject-matter expert at Gallup, explains how one organization he advised developed “Guiding Principles” to promote collaboration and psychological safety among the team. Developing a similar model at your organization can help you establish a direction for your organization based on what will make your employees feel valued and heard. The best way to do this is to solicit their opinions directly, for example through a brainstorming session.

5. Deliver, encourage and solicit feedback.

Offer feedback regularly, remembering to be empathetic when you do. In order for employees to improve, they need to know what they’re doing right as well as how they could do things better. Encourage employees to do the same with one another, establishing guidelines for the best way to exchange constructive criticism. Of course, remind them to praise one another as well. As per point #1, you should also be soliciting feedback on your own work, too.

6. Evaluate psychological safety. 

Paul Santagata, head of industry at Google, routinely checks in with his team to see how his employees are doing in terms of their psychological safety. It’s important to measure the success of your initiatives and understand how your team is doing overall, through measures such as surveys and one-on-one meetings with employees.

Who coined the term?

Harvard Business School professor created the term psychological safety based on her work with teams back in 1999. She defined it as “A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes."

Dr. Edmondson further explores the concept of psychological safety in her TEDx talk.

How can I nurture my own psychological safety at work?

A company culture that supports you and offers a space for you to voice your opinions and concerns is essential to your psychological safety. There are also steps you can take to nurture your own attitudes and well-being at work.

1. Take risks.

Easier said than done, I know. But if you’re in a work environment that allows you to be bold, run with it. You don’t know if your risk will pay off, but you do know that nothing will happen if you do nothing. 

2. Work with a mentor.

A mentor can be a sounding board and a source of encouragement. Fostering a strong relationship with a supportive mentor will help you grow in your career and become more comfortable in the workplace. You can also turn to her for advice and ask her opinion on work-related issues. If she’s a colleague, she can serve as an ally at work, too.

3. Be vulnerable.

We’re often critical of ourselves and succumb to that voice in our heads that tell us we’re not good enough. Learn how to let your guard down and be open with your colleagues. View issues and problems through a different lens, asking yourself what you would think about it and how you would handle it if a friend were going through the same thing. Try telling yourself that it’s okay to make mistakes, and consider the worst possible outcome. Chances are, it’s not dire.

4. Trust others.

Just as you have needs in the workplace, so do others. And in order for everyone to foster a psychologically safe atmosphere, you must trust your colleagues — and trust them to trust you, too. 

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