Psychological safety describes an overall team climate characterised by mutual respect in which people are comfortable speaking their minds, taking risks, and trying out new things without fear of repercussions. 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.
Psychological safety matters for a number of reasons:
Amy Edmonson 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.
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:
Social contracts then make answers to these questions explicit in a working agreement between members. The aim is to establish what is acceptable behaviour 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:
Check out the team charter template for a quick way to get started. You’ll find social contracts and more.
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:
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.