Psychological safety fosters a sense of belonging among team members—a fundamental human need that contributes to greater empathy, cooperation and accountability. Those qualities, in turn, build trust.
Unfortunately, much of the common bad behaviour we see inside organizations threatens the psychological safety of teams. Things like blame and criticism, disregard for new ideas, penalizing for mistakes, a lack of empathy and competition.
Team members who feel psychologically unsafe are insecure and disengaged. Additionally, rather than speaking up with new ideas or insights, they tend toward groupthink: A psychological phenomenon where well-intentioned people, spurred by the urge to conform, make irrational or non-optimal decisions. This hurts the entire team and limits progress and innovation.
Creating a Culture of Safety
To get the best from a team, managers and leaders build a sense of shared trust and respect so that every team member feels comfortable participating and expressing themselves. Here’s how:
1. Model Trust
Research shows that when a manager shares their vulnerabilities, mistakes and self-doubts they form the foundation of creating psychological safety—enhancing team trust and improving engagement. Team members are more likely to participate in trust-building behaviours when a manager demonstrates them first. In fact, only two percent of employees who think of their managers as unapproachable are engaged at work and a whopping 65 percent are actively disengaged.
Think of it this way: Everyone wants to feel valued, respected and like they belong. Modelling this important behaviour also sends a message of acceptance to the team and helps everyone remember that we are more alike than different.
Try this: Share a past mistake and what you learned from it. Share a current work challenge and ask for input. Throw out a wild idea to free your team up to voice riskier, more creative or out-there ideas. Share a time where you had to learn on the job—when you had to do something new for the first time.
2. Manage Conflict
Respectfully handling issues and differences is the second key component of creating a psychologically safe culture. As we all know, when in confrontational situations people react emotionally, sometimes very strongly, with silence, tears, anger, laughter even. There are specific ways to handle these situations that will build a safe culture and reinforce trust.
Try this: For example, when someone on the team is silent don’t mistake it for dismissiveness. They may be listening, but they may not know what to say, are afraid to say anything that may provoke disciple, or are overwhelmed and shutting down. Assure them that you’re there to help, not punish. Ask open-ended questions to encourage dialogue (ie, “Tell me what happened today.”). And carefully word comments to encourage openness.
Step 3: Enable Collaboration
Creating a safe space to enable collaboration is the final step in creating a team that feels psychologically safe. Research shows that when every person feels comfortable contributing, your team will become more collaborative, creative and productive. This can lead to breakthroughs.
Try this: Encourage people to share more by asking questions. Share observations in a neutral way, rather than a judgemental one. Accept all ideas equally and resist the urge to criticize. Encourage collaboration, not competition. Show understanding by repeating what was said. Do not interrupt each other.
Psychological safety grows with regular, positive interactions and consistent effort. How will you change your leadership style to model empathy, better manager conflict and enable collaboration?