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Risking everything, means having everything to gain.

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

A leader's guide to elevating psychological safety in teams.

There’s a lot of noise surrounding psychological safety in teams, particularly high performing teams. And we can tell you from experience, there is good reason for it!

We thought we’d take the opportunity to dispel a few myths on what psychological safety is and isn’t and share some of our thoughts on what this means to leaders.

Psychological safety is a team construct and shared belief. When teams share psychological safety, according to both Timothy Clark and Amy Edmondson, four things happen.

People feel a sense of inclusion. Belonging opens up space for teams to feel safe failing and learning together. As personal risk minimises, we share more of our thinking with the team, contributing to the team, and reaching the point where people feel they can open up discussion to challenge each other’s thinking.

Timothy Clark’s research tells us that whilst people do not move linearly through these stages, we do move through different degrees of psychological safety in different teams, contexts, times of day, and as our attitude to risk shifts.

Psychological safety is not the same as trust.

And what of the relationship between psychological safety and TRUST? Amy Edmondson tells us trust is important to psychological safety and a study of a global automobile company found that a culture of trust had a significantly positive effect on the psychological safety of its people.

Trust and psychological safety are closely related. Psychological safety is the belief that you can take risks and speak up without fear of repercussions. When we feel safe, we are more likely to express ourselves freely, ask questions, and share opinions. Trust is the confidence we have in each other. It comes when team members feel they can rely on each other and keep their promises to each other, and when others have our best interest at heart. I often say it’s about having good intentions at the core of it!

When there is trust between individuals and within teams, it instils a sense of safety that allows people to feel comfortable expressing themselves and take risks. For us, trust and psychological safety are mutually reinforcing concepts that are vital for teams and workplace cultures to thrive.

Psychological safety is not a new concept or idea.

The concept was introduced in the early work of Kurt Lewin (1940s) as part of organisational change literature and remained in this domain until Kahn (1990s) introduced it as a domain of organisational behaviour. We could reason that there was a time when change was intentional and planned; that luxury is gone in a VUCA world that invites 24x7 agility and this may be the basis for today's intense focus on psychological safety and its relationship to high performing teams.

Regardless of how we arrived, we now know a high performance workplace requires team safety. So we created a few thoughts on how leaders can elevate their teams safety;

  • Cultivate social sensitivity and empathy for others, get curious, listen, ask questions

  • Express appreciation when team members contribute, build those positive vibes

  • Endorse a learning culture and that takes a growth mindset

  • Find opportunities to include all voices, remembering share of voice is also important

  • Acknowledge your own fallibility, all humans make mistakes, you don’t always need to have the answers or get it right. Ask for help, other humans love it when you ask them to give you a hand up. Humanise your workplace.

  • When mistakes occur, try the approach of supporting your people to quickly recover

  • People appreciate the space to do things their way, for leaders this means giving them space to fail forward

Whilst these are great tips to get you started, we recognise it's not as simple as 1,2,3 and things can get in our way of building psychologically safe cultures. Our own experiences bring a few things to mind!

  • Shining a light on what’s at risk may destabilise the team/division/organisation and we fear people may panic. But there is much more to lose when we don’t.

  • To take our teams on this journey is an art form in language and conversational intelligence. It’s linking emotional intelligence, trust and psychological safety, requiring effort, energy and time. Our world moves so fast moving that leaders are often operating in the here, now and urgent. The pause is the greatest gift leaders can give themselves and their teams.

  • We fail to truly appreciate the value of co-creating and problem solving together, the collective wisdom, often weighing up time, resources and money. But experience the benefits once and you'll soon be shifting your perspective!

  • Our brains are designed to naturally move us away from uncertainty, high stakes and a lot of risk. We can’t be operating like this when we are on autopilot, and yet we are often in autopilot mode. Again, the PAUSE is the greatest gift to leaders!

  • It may feel easier to cultivate psychological safety in a smaller more intimate team environment. Larger teams take effort, we may feel the effort outweighs the value of getting things done. And the more complex, broader, higher stakes the business, the more we focus on payoffs for today.

  • And in a highly political and scrutinised environment, where the risk and stakes are extremely high, all the time, there is more complexity to navigate.

  • At an individual level, my level of accountability (and optimism) may have an impact as does the distribution of power in an organisation.

  • Our environment, the system in which we operate, board governance, the industry, they may act in a way that promotes behaviours opposite to psychological safety. And so whilst leaders have a desire to promote psychological safety, they are stifled by the system within which they operate. It takes more than changing behaviours, it requires system changes as well.

  • When mistakes are expensive does that shift psychological safety? Are we naturally more risk averse? And so, does the value of psychological safety diminish as the value of risk increases?

To sincerely address psychological safety in teams, leaders and organisation need to also understand and consider how the system within which they work either promotes or inhibits interpersonal risk taking.

Psychological safety alone does not translate into a high performance culture.

A high performance culture requires more.

To learn more about Psychological Safety and the Fearless Organization Scan or to discover how our high performance frameworks support your teams to thrive, get in touch with us today.



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