How to Make Your Team Feel Psychologically Safe


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You may have heard of psychological safety. It is an important element in positive team dynamics, particularly as it relates to fostering a supportive, productive and innovative company culture.

Harvard Business School professor and researcher Amy C. Edmondson first coined the term in 1999 in a research paper. In it, Edmondson defined psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Essentially, psychological safety in the workplace is about the freedom to express ideas and pose solutions without fear of negative consequences.

Ironically, the notion of psychological safety and the permission to step outside the box can be pretty scary to many employees. Even with permission to make mistakes, there can be a level of discomfort associated with vulnerability. People fear rejection. They perhaps lack trust. Business leaders themselves may struggle with forthcomingness due to concerns over power dynamics or the appearance of not possessing all the solutions. So, while psychological safety is commendable and incredibly rewarding, achieving it is, in fact, easier said than done.

Let’s get started on how to peel back the layers of psychological safety and some preconceived notions related to power, trust and productivity in your organization.

Related: 4 Ways to Cultivate Psychological Safety for Your Team

Psychological safety is just smart business

Now, I am no psychologist or interpersonal development researcher. But I am the President and CEO of a global organization that works with thousands of business owners to enhance key aspects of their companies, such as operations, productivity, innovation, human resources and leadership. And I can tell you firsthand that few if any, businesses today thrive due to a top-down management style that limits employee involvement and discourages fresh ideas.

Even large, well-entrenched corporations increasingly recognize the value of collaboration and input—and not just from their leadership teams. Fostering psychological safety throughout the organization means that everyone, not just those at the top of the food chain, is empowered and encouraged to contribute insights and solutions. However, a great deal of progress still needs to be made.

According to a recent Wiley survey, only 53% of respondents felt safe taking workplace risks. As job titles elevated, so did comfort level, with 93% of executives reporting feeling psychologically safe in their roles. These statistics amount to a lot of missed organizational opportunities.

A 2021 Accenture study reported that companies that embrace psychological safety benefit from a 27% reduction in employee turnover, a 50% increase in productivity and a quantifiably more engaged and satisfied team. So psychological safety, it seems, simply makes good business sense.

Related: Why You Should Care About Psychological Safety in the Workplace

How to promote psychological safety in your business

Psychological safety in an organization doesn’t happen overnight. It takes work and a great deal of intentionality. And transparency. And team-building. And open communication. And support. It also requires a good dose of humility from business leadership.

At its core, psychological safety is about building and fostering an environment that encourages, appreciates, and even rewards personal insight and creativity. While how organizations might achieve this goal is arguably unique and dependent on multiple factors, there are universally key elements to psychological safety.

1. Respect and professionalism. High standards of professional conduct are foundational to psychological safety. Respectful interactions among peers and leadership are essential even in high-stress scenarios. Consider creating and documenting a professional code of conduct for your organization and including it in your employee handbook.

2. Open communication and feedback. Encourage your team to offer their ideas and concerns in both closed-door conversations and group meetings. This includes their views on current operations or new implementations. It is important that while consideration and regard are given to opposing perspectives, solutions and discussions don’t get locked in analysis paralysis. Instead, when it makes sense, commit to revisiting issues after a set amount of time.

3. Trust and empathy. Trust can be tricky at both the leadership and non-managerial levels, but it really starts within the hiring process. Vet potential employees for not just hard skills and acumen but also their ability to be collaborative, show compassion and essentially act as a trusted advisor to your organization. It is not only about you trusting them, but they trust you as well—and everyone on the team trusts each other. So seek those job candidates with both great skills and high emotional IQs.

4. Acknowledgement and support. From a leadership standpoint, it is important to validate individual contributions even when those ideas don’t necessarily come to fruition or generate the anticipated results. A simple nod of recognition or support can encourage your team and act as a powerful catalyst for future improvements and innovation.

As you continue to navigate your journey to success, remember that every member of your team adds tremendous value to your organization. It is your job as a business leader to ensure that they know this and feel psychologically safe enough to show it.

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