Psychological safety: the key to high-performing teams

Written by: the Officevibe Content Team | Illustrated by: Simon Lavallée-Fortier
Published on March 6, 2019 | Reading time: 8m

The focus on people and soft skills in the workplace has become more and more prevalent, and with good reason: the essence of high-performing teams is based largely on the relationships between the people in them.

Attend any HR or business conference today and you’ll see Keynotes like Esther Perel, a relationship-based psychotherapist (we’re big fans), in the same lineup as industry analysts like Josh Bersin. We are now in the business of people and building a culture of psychological safety for them to thrive in.

Who is responsible for this? Everyone in the company. But, it starts with leaders like you.

Research confirms: Psychological safety for the win

This industry shift is so significant that Google spent two years conducting Project Aristotle, an attempt to discover what sets their most effective teams apart from the pack. Their initial assumption was that high-performing teams were founded on the right blend of complementary hard skills. Wrong! After interviewing 180 teams, it became crystal clear that high-performing teams are in fact founded on a balance of human-centered traits. Psychological safety (which we will explain thoroughly as you scroll) was at the top of the list, every time.

Project Aristotle’s key characteristics of high-performing teams

  1. Psychological safety: the team can take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed
  2. Dependability: the ability to count on each other to do high-quality work, on time
  3. Structure and clarity: working with clearly defined goals, roles, and execution plans
  4. Meaning of work: the work is personally important to everybody on the team
  5. Impact of work: everybody on the team fundamentally believes that their work matters

Psychological safety takes time and a deliberate effort to develop and maintain on your team.

We’re here to help! Just keep reading.

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Wait, what exactly is Psychological Safety?

Credit for coining the phrase belongs to the brilliant Amy C. Edmondson, who defines it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” In other words, psychologically safe teams trust each other to experiment without judgement, voice opinions without being shamed, and fail without being labelled a failure.

In Edmondson’s quest to determine what characteristics comprise the most performing teams, she first noted that high-performing teams seemed to make more mistakes than their counterparts.

Interesting… right?

But upon digging a bit deeper she realized that high-performing teams didn’t actually make more mistakes than low-performing teams, they were just admitting to more mistakes!

Why? Because there was a safe environment to do so. In short, treating failure as an acceptable outcome enables teams to learn, innovate, discuss, and work together to develop better results.

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What does Psychological Safety look like on a team?

On a psychologically safe team, people feel at ease being themselves. You can show up to work just as you are, trust that you are accepted, share your thoughts and ideas, ask questions, and confront tough conversations, head on. WOW. Imagine the output you’ll get from your team.

Without the time worrying about whether your question is valid, or your project idea strong, you’re freeing up valuable brain space to focus on being creative and thinking outside the box.

Likewise, on a psychologically safe team, employees complement one another; one person’s strength fills in for the next person’s weakness, and there’s no shame in acknowledging those weaknesses. There’s a “we’re all in it together” vibe going on that makes it a pleasure to show up at the office.

Psychological safety is ultimately the seed that nourishes curiosity and a speak-up culture that wins at the race of innovation and differentiation.

What happens when there’s no Psychological Safety? Yikes…

It might be hard to imagine that something as intangible as the feeling of safety and trust on a team could affect a team’s performance or the organization’s bottom line, but think again. In a workplace that isn’t psychologically sound, you’ll find a culture where people fear being embarrassed or blamed. This means that they won’t ask questions, share ideas, or be comfortable voicing concerns. This is a recipe for disaster. Need proof?

Look no further than the recent Volkswagen emissions scandal that cost the company not only a pretty penny, but the loyalty of their clients, and their employees. The company is teeming with smart, talented individuals, but because of its once fear-based culture, those same people didn’t feel they had the space to speak up. What are the learnings?

They learn that the absence of psychological safety keeps team members from disagreeing with dominant opinions. They learn that organizational failures result from rigid reporting lines, […]

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We’ve all bitten our tongue when we should have spoken up, or sheepishly pitched an idea instead of passionately standing up for it. For the company, this kind of hesitation runs the risk of preventing the kind of collaborative thinking that leads teams to reach their full potential.

So, how Psychologically Safe is your team?

In trying to understand if your workplace is psychologically safe, there are many indicators to look out for. Barbara Frederickson found that the below traits are solid indicators of psychological safety in the workplace:

  1. Curiosity to ask questions and think big
  2. Trust between employees
  3. Open-mindedness to change, perspectives, etc.
  4. Self-motivation and a sense of purpose
  5. Resilience in confronting and overcoming conflict

While these indicators are a helpful starting point, your team is beautifully unique, so it’s important to dig a bit deeper. To do that, you’ll need to ask questions. Lots of questions!

Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.

Andy Stanley

Ask your team, as a whole and in private one-on-ones, to share feedback on how they feel about topics around inclusivity, trust between colleagues, admitting to mistakes, being themselves, comfort to share ideas, tendency to ask questions, etc.

(If you’d like to get serious about collecting continuous feedback and honest insights about how your team really feels, starting anonymously might be beneficial. We can help.)

From those questions, discussions, and feedback channels, what are you hearing? Do people feel comfortable sharing ideas and opinions? Is the team diverse and inclusive? Do they trust their teammates? Do they trust you?

While leaders and individuals each have their own goals, your shared goal is to create an environment with continuous, open communication that makes it easier to have difficult conversations about the things that aren’t working on a team (whether it be processes, methods, or even human conflict). Without the safe space to face these head on, teams might survive, but thriving is not likely.

A group of umbrellas viewed from above representing psychological safety

A manager’s cheat sheet to building a Psychologically Safe team

This cheat sheet will help you foster a psychologically safe environment on your team. Let’s get started!

1. Focus on learning, not executing

If your team misses the mark on a project, take the time to understand what went wrong instead of rushing to find the solution and moving onto the next task. Position failure and challenges as opportunities to learn and problem solve together as a team. Your employees likely have an inkling of what went wrong in the process, planning, execution, or between team members, so it’s important to give them the space to discuss it openly as a team without shame or fear.

2. Encourage experimentation

A big part of learning and innovating is trying new things and challenging yourself (and your team!). Encourage experimentation and support the exploration of ideas instead of following previously-formed paths from A to B. If you are going to promote a “think-outside-the-box” mentality, be prepared to speak in hypotheses, not certainties. This lessens the blow of failure and therefore makes it easier to share more “risky” ideas.

3. Demonstrate curiosity

Lead by example and ask a lot of questions. Not only will this spark discussions and demonstrate the value of pushing the status quo, you’re showing that your workplace is a safe environment to be vulnerable and not know everything. Even managers have plenty to learn, so let them see that!

4. Acknowledge your own fallibility

On that note, by admitting and owning your own mistakes, you’re telling the team it’s ok to fail. Let your team know that you will miss things or make mistakes, and that you expect them to speak up and hold you accountable, rather than keeping quiet. You’re not the “boss,” you’re a part of the team, and you’re all in it together.

5. Embrace discomfort

We’ve all felt the anxiety leading up to a difficult conversation. However, if you set a standard that you and your team openly discuss issues and deal with them head on, you’ll prevent smaller issues from spiraling into real problems. By creating a safe environment to confront tough topics, you’ll work through the issue and come out stronger.

6. Set it, but don’t forget it

Creating a safe workplace takes more than an afternoon workshop. As your team grows and evolves and new personalities join the squad, dynamics will change, so you’ll need to be sure to focus on maintaining psychological safety. That means continuing to survey your team on how they are feeling, in group discussions and one-on-ones.

7. One size does not fit all

Whether or not the organization is largely psychologically safe, your team has its own set of unwritten rules, standards and individuals. A technique that works for Group A won’t necessarily work for Group B, so be sure that you consider your team’s subculture. Don’t CTRL+C, CTRL+V one team’s methods to your own. To build the right kind of psychological safety, work with your team to see if changes are required to maintain the trust and confidence levels needed to work freely.

8. Build team values

With that in mind, try creating a set of written norms for everyone to follow. Build a mission or value statement unique to your team, including the characteristics that your team will embrace and embody, and the values that you’ll all respect and hold each other accountable to.

So yes, committing to developing a safe, open, and inclusive workplace requires (appropriately) work. But it’s undoubtedly the key to tapping into your team’s full potential, enabling them to innovate, push their boundaries, and truly differentiate your company.

How do you foster a psychologically safe and open environment on your team?

Tell us in the comments below.

This post has been updated to reflect current views.