← Back to Blog


Building psychological safety: It takes values first, then a village

Ryan Ackerman

August 24, 2021

Building psychological safety: It takes values first, then a village

Psychological safety. It’s the belief that one won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes in the workplace, characterized by a comfort in taking risks and a willingness to appear vulnerable in front of one’s colleagues.

Like everything that goes into it, creating and continuously improving a team’s psychological safety takes a lot. But no matter how big or small your team is, without common values to bond and establish trust over, fostering high performance and team success will surely be a tall feat.

The impacts of psychologically (un)safe teams

We know organizations that have psychological safety outperform those that don't. Take Google’s famous two year study revealing the biggest driver of team performance for example. It was, in fact, psychological safety. Or when Gallup looked into the effects of increasing psychological safety in team-based environments, they found groups were able to boost their overall productivity by up to 12%. 

We also know that leaders who are able to instill this sense of comfort within their team members frequently experience higher rates of innovation, greater levels of moderate risk taking and an overall increase in productivity. Teams struggling to honour the sensitivities of their peers however, are often confronted with devastating repercussions. 

With a tendency for team members to stay silent in groups for fear of judgement, failure to innovate and hesitation to drive action can lead to stagnation and watching competitors pass you by. Add discomfort in taking risks and you’ve got a recipe for rewarding silence that negatively impacts the quality of decision-making and discourages pressure testing for challenges from well-meaning colleagues.

It’s time to rethink, replace and repeat

To effectively promote psychological safety, we need to rethink the status quo values for leadership when it comes to measuring team success. This means shifting from a ‘me’ mentality (my contributions and reputation) to a ‘we’ outlook (valuing how is the team collaborating above all else). 

To start, do away with the status quo value of taking defense in needing to be right and pushing back against criticism. Then, replace it with the value of staying humble alongside the confidence to ask for input when you don’t have all the answers. You’ll find yourself challenging others in a collaborative way to speak up knowing your colleagues may have great ideas to listen to.

Because we know transitioning from the status quo isn’t easy, here’s how you can rethink your approach to make your team a psychologically safe one:

If you focus on balancing confidence and humility to promote the values that support psychological safety, what comes next is simply second nature.

Getting your team to psychological safety, together

Now that you’ve got the right mindset to promote psychological safety, use these approaches to with your team to help you get there:

  1. Seek truth over winning

Get one level deeper on the reasons behind ideas, decisions and/or proposals. If your team is arguing about buying machine A vs. B or choosing marketing strategy X over Z, go over the assumptions, rationale and hypotheses to support a recommendation. By debating the underlying rationale & hypotheses you are both more likely to find a better solution and to create an atmosphere where people feel like teammates vs adversaries.

  1. Debate content, not people

When your team finds itself in disagreement, steer the debate onto the specific content and not the person who proposed it. Establishing mutual respect as part of conflict ensures all parties feel valued and understood.

  1. Embrace curiosity

Encourage a learning mindset for diversity of thought and respect to thrive in every situation. Have a peer with opposing viewpoints or feel they did something wrong? Ask them what they think happened and why they did what they did to understand their approach. The key is to ask before commenting on their actions. Criticizing may backfire in that your colleague will feel the need to fight back, whereas question asking may have them come to a different conclusion on their own. 

  1. Ask for feedback

This creates space to be open and builds trust by demonstrating to your team that you’re invested in improving alongside them. When having difficult conversations, such as when you’re correcting behaviours or conducting evaluations, ask for feedback in return and always thank the person for their input (even if you disagree). 

Asking for feedback is especially important for the team leader. And when you get the feedback you asked for role model thanks and not defensiveness. Teammates need to feel rewarded, not challenged, for giving feedback.

  1. Make time to focus on team safety and health

Have discussions as a team not just about the work you’re doing but how you’re working together. Take a step back and discuss how you’re interacting, what’s working on the team and what isn’t. The more you do this, and people take action on the input, the more open you’ll find everyone becomes.

To build the spaces for a team to feel secure, open and free to outperform the rest takes a village. But if you have the right mindset and values to promote psychological safety in place, success, for everyone, comes naturally.