Psychological safety (or lack thereof) plays a major role in the success of a team within an organization. High-performing teams demonstrate psychological safety with risk-taking, curiosity, respect, and vulnerability. Conversely, the opposite of psychological safety is psychological danger—when a team is full of fear, blame, or an unwillingness to collaborate.
Here are some ways to guarantee psychological safety in your workplace.
How to Build Psychological Safety
Get the basics right
This is about management, structure and clarity. Ensure that people know what to do when they sit at their desk in the morning (or whenever and wherever they start work). Team members must know what their priorities are.
Break the Golden Rule
Don’t treat other people the way you want to be treated – they’re not you. Treat your team members the way they want to be treated. An effective leader gets to know their team members on a deep and personal level, and recognizes that people change over time. Use this knowledge to work with your team members in the way they prefer.
Be inclusive in decision making
Allow teams to contribute to decisions that affect them. This doesn’t mean that every decision requires consensus, simply that people must feel that their voice has been heard and considered. Particularly in remote and distributed teams, it’s easy to miss someone disengaging from the team or conversation. Everyone in the team needs to contribute. Be actively inclusive.
Define team values and behaviors
Team members must know what’s expected of them, and what the common values held by the team are. It’s important to translate values, such as “commitment”, into behaviors, such as “following through on promises”. This ensures that a common set of expectations is shared across the team, and team members can depend on and trust each other.
Take every opportunity to examine how to improve individually and as a team. That often means holding retrospectives after an incident or failure. If a mistake by a team member is discovered or admitted, thank them for their honesty, and find ways to prevent it happening or mitigate the impact of it. If someone is blamed for a mistake, psychological safety of the whole team will suffer and subsequent retrospectives will be far less successful.
Admit fault first
One of the key points of psychological safety is about being able to admit mistakes and be vulnerable. As a leader, it’s important to model this behavior by doing so yourself. By admitting fault, you’re not only modeling and making it acceptable for team members to admit mistakes, but if they admire you as a strong leader, they’ll actually want to think of mistakes that they can admit to in order to emulate your behavior.
Invite feedback (or advice!)
As a leader, you must be open to feedback from your team members and peers. However, it’s also necessary to remember that feedback must be constructive, positive, contextual, and delivered with good intent. Reframing “feedback” as “advice” is a good first step. Discuss with your team members how feedback (advice) should be provided, and state explicitly that not all feedback has to be taken on or acted upon, since the person providing it only sees the external “you” – not the real you.
Show vulnerability and emotion
Showing vulnerability and emotion is a fundamental aspect of psychological safety. As a leader, it is unfair to expect your team members to show vulnerability and emotion if you do not do so yourself.
Be firm with negative behaviors
While it’s important to assume the best of everyone on the team, sometimes team members may behave in ways that are detrimental to the team culture, dynamic, or organization’s performance, intentionally or not.
Provide financial and job security
It’s possible that you may not have control over these factors. Even if you don’t, it’s important to be aware of how they impact psychological safety. Financial security allows people to focus. Through not being overly worried about finances, whether it’s how they’re going to pay the rent, or whether they can afford a holiday this year, people can focus on delivering great value to the organization.
Encourage radical candor
This is a new management philosophy based on two approaches—caring personally and challenging directly. The radical candor framework is used to guide conversations and not fall into the trap of supporting behaviors that are damaging to teams.
People don’t always agree with each other, but discussion is vitally important in business. Encouraging mutual respect helps to improve communication and reduce workplace conflict and stress. Reducing pettiness in the workplace and encouraging respect helps to build psychological safety. The best way to promote respect at work is to ‘walk the walk.’
Part of psychological safety is being able to express oneself. Encouraging the Team to be curious and ask questions is where real learning happens. Ask for feedback from employees and encourage them to ask questions. Start by asking ‘What can we do better?’
Acknowledge ideas and the sharing of mistakes
Things do not always go to plan and making mistakes does not mean you are a failure. Mistakes offer helpful learnings and are often the source of major innovations in business. In psychologically safe environments, employees feel they can make a mistake and won’t be penalized for it.