Psychological safety: a critical element for imagination work

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
September 2, 2021
Psychological safety: a critical element for imagination work
Written by 
Jim Kalbach
September 2, 2021

What keeps people on your team from speaking up and contributing ideas? How can we intentionally design a team climate where people take risks and try new things out? 

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety describes an overall team climate characterized by mutual respect in which people are comfortable speaking their minds, taking risks, and trying out new things without fear of repercussions. Teams with a high degree of psychological safety understand they won't be punished or mocked if they ask questions, speak up with new ideas, raise concerns, or make mistakes.

High-performing teams have a great deal of psychological safety built into their standard mode of operation. 

But psychological safety isn’t just about consensus and harmony within the team. On the contrary, it’s psychological safety that enables team members to challenge each other. Teams also have to be able to disagree for imagination to flourish. It’s possible to be provocative and empathetic at the same time. 

A drawing of Darth Vader standing by a suggestion box.
How well can a team perform well if they don't feel safe sharing ideas? Drawing by Mark Tippin

Why psychological safety matters for teams

Psychological safety matters for a number of reasons: 

  • Employee wellbeing: Imagination workers, in particular, need a climate of psychological safety in order to feel good about themselves and their work. 
  • Improved results and outcomes: Teams reach their goals and deadlines better when there is an atmosphere of mutual respect. 
  • Promotes imagination: Groups are able to play freely and push their collective imaginations to the limit when there is a safe environment.

Amy Edmondson has done some of the best work on psychological safety and on teamwork in general. Check out her best selling books, The Fearless Organization and Teaming. These works remind us of the hard work involved in creating safe work environments: “Although it sounds simple, the ability to seek help and tolerate mistakes while colleagues watch can be unexpectedly difficult,” writes Edmonson.

We also recommend Alla Weinberg’s A Culture of Safety, a compact book dedicated to the topic of psychological safety with a lot of practical information. 

"Although it sounds simple, the ability to seek help and tolerate mistakes while colleagues watch can be unexpectedly difficult." quote by Amy Edmonson..
Psychological safety in meetings help employees feel good about their work, leading to more productive, imaginative outcomes.

Designing psychological safety

Psychological safety is fragile: it builds slowly, but breaks down very quickly. (It’s a lot like trust, in that it “grows at the speed of a coconut tree and falls at the speed of a coconut.”) A single incident can undermine progress towards a healthy climate. Leaders and coworkers alike need to actively overcome a natural tendency to remain silent and encourage participation. 

While psychological safety can grow naturally, it can also be designed. It’s a social construct that should be addressed openly. In your team, discuss these questions and more: 

  • What can we count on each other for?
  • What is our team's purpose?
  • What is the reputation we aspire to have?
  • What do we need to do differently to achieve that reputation and fulfill our purpose?

Social contracts then make answers to these questions explicit in a working agreement between members. The aim is to establish what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. Setting specific expectations matters more than you think. So document your team’s best practices around when to meet, how members should prepare for meetings, rules around asynchronous work, general behavior guidelines, and more. 

For instance, a simple list of general rules of engagement for a team to agree on might look like this: 

  • Avoid meetings that are before or after hours for teammates in different time zones.
  • If you have to schedule a meeting for an early or late slot due to time zones, ask those who are inconvenienced if that’s acceptable. 
  • Meetings are for discussion and decision making. For status updates and info shares, create a video recording to be watched prior to gathering as a group. 
  • Come prepared. If there is a pre-work video to watch, do so before showing up to any meeting.
  • Reserve judgement of others’ ideas and ask for clarification before challenging them. 
  • It’s OK to disagree so long as you do so respectfully.
  • Implement an explicit turn-taking technique to ensure everyone has had a chance to speak, e.g., popcorning or pass the ball. 
  • The customer experience is everyone’s responsibility.

Check out the team charter template for a quick way to get started. You’ll find social contracts and more. 

A collage that connects a culture of safety to wellbeing and imagination for teams.

Lay the groundwork for psychological safety to grow

Knowing what to expect from everyone on the team lays the groundwork for psychological safety to grow. This in turn opens up the group to use their imagination more and engage in creative problem solving. 

Team leads play a big role in setting the character of the team interaction. In addition to creating a social contract, here are some things team leaders can do to proactively create a safe team environment: 

  • Be a role model by demonstrating the behaviors needed to provide safety.
  • Be authentic, humble, and vulnerable: as a leader, share your doubts and concerns with the group to signal it’s OK to not have all the answers. 
  • Reward wins and good ideas to get others to speak up. 
  • Celebrate “bad” ideas and mistakes, as well, to show learning has taken place. 
  • Remind the team to use “yes, and” to build on ideas and keep momentum going. 
  • Use playful methods to guide the team interaction and give equal voices to everyone. 
  • Remember to have fun and laugh together. 
  • Do something outside of work together, like a happy hour or similar (even if it’s virtual). 
  • Address issues that might threaten safety early and openly. 

Team leads should actively observe team interactions and power dynamics in conversations, meetings, and workshops. Notice who speaks and who doesn't. Try to understand why. And team members should adopt behaviors that contribute to a psychologically safe climate rather than detract from them. 

About the authors

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in innovation, design, and the future of work. He is currently Chief Evangelist at Mural, the leading visual work platform.