Psychological Safety for Teams

EQ Durban, EQ South Africa
Written by: Avril Kidd
Psychological safety in the workplace is about providing a safe space for employees to be their full selves and not to feel that they will be punished or humiliated for expressing their opinion, ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.

The best single question for testing an organisation’s character is: what happens when people make mistakes? [ROBERT I. SUTTON]

Psychological safety is one of the main criteria for successful teams and performance. We may not be able to control natural disasters or the past events, but we certainly can create psychological safety in our workplaces.

Psychological safety is …

The belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

It’s a shared belief held by members of a team that others on the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish you for speaking up or for taking risks. In psychologically safe teams, team members express mutual respect, trust, and interest in each other as people. The 2019 People Management Report found that managers who create psychologically safe work environments have lower staff turnover in their teams and employees are more engaged as they feel comfortable and share the belief that the team is safe for risk-taking.


What can you do to create psychological safety?

 Below are 8 actions you can take.

1. You need to be engaged with your team.

If your employees feel that you don’t pay attention when they speak, or that you don’t value their thoughts and opinions, they’ll shut down.

Be fully present during meetings and when employees talk to you. Make eye contact and close your laptop, and don’t look at your phone. When you’re distracted by emails or messages it indicates disengagement which will negatively impact your team’s psychological safety. Engagement also means listening to what others have to say – remember to practice active listening, which we have discussed previously.

2. Seek and show understanding.

When your employees feel that you care enough to try and understand them and consider their point of view, they experience psychological safety.

Use your empathy and curiosity to be open to other people’s ideas. Sometimes the best solutions may come from people a few levels below you because they are closer to the cold face. Ask for suggestions and really listen. Be aware of and use your body language to encourage team members to talk. Nod your head during discussions to acknowledge what an employee is saying. Be aware of your facial expressions, and remember that words are a small percentage of communication. If you look tired, bored, or unhappy, your employees will notice and may misinterpret this as negative feedback. When people feel judged they often become defensive or shut down. Remember that people make assumptions based on their own interpretation.

3. Avoid blaming to build trust, and reframe failures as learning opportunities.

When things go wrong, focus first on how to fix them, and not on who to blame. To build and maintain psychological safety in the workplace, focus on solutions. Problems are solved more effectively when people are thinking logically and not from a place of fear as this results in them defending themselves or their team rather than focusing on resolving the problem.

I strongly encourage teams to use failures as learning opportunities. When we share failures with the aim of preventing them happening again and not to humiliate the person or people involved, people will be more open and honest which can prevent unnecessary repetitive mistakes and covering up mistakes out of fear.

4. Increase self and team awareness

People are complex and have diverse and unique personalities, preferences, and work styles. Encourage sharing within your team of how you work best, how you like to communicate, and how you like to be recognized.

I have run many successful Brain Styles sessions with clients to increase both self-awareness and awareness of others in a non-judgmental, fun way. This enables them to have greater clarity and respect for the other person’s preferences for working and communicating, creates psychological safety, and improves communication.

5. Do not tolerate negativity and back biting.

If you have a team member who speaks negatively about peers, talk to them about it. Be clear that you work together as a team and that negativity and speaking behind people’s backs will not be tolerated. If this type of behavior is allowed, it can become contagious, will erode trust, and destroy all psychological safety.

6. Include your team in decision-making.

When making decisions, consult your team. Whenever feasible, ask for their input, thoughts, and feedback. Not only will this help them feel included in the decision-making process, but it will build psychological safety and better outcomes.

Once a decision is made, explain the reasoning behind your decision. How did their feedback factor into the decision? What other considerations were made? Even if your employees don’t agree, they’ll appreciate the honesty and transparency behind how the decision was made.

When communicating decisions, be sure to highlight contributions from team members. If a certain idea or piece of feedback led to the decision or a successful outcome, acknowledge and celebrate that employee’s contribution.

7. Encourage and be open to feedback

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to make the final judgment call on many decisions. Your team needs to know that you are confident in this responsibility, but also that you are flexible in approach and open to their feedback. When employees feel psychologically safe, they will give open and honest feedback without fear of reprisals.

Invite your team to challenge your perspective in a constructive manner. While this may be uncomfortable at first, healthy conflict and divergence leads to better decisions and greater accountability. How you handle feedback will set the tone for your team, so lead by example and avoid becoming defensive when given feedback. Use it as a growth opportunity. Team members need to feel accepted and respected.

8. Champion your team.

Finally, it’s important to support and represent your team in good and bad times. Let them know you’re on their side by supporting their personal and professional development.

Be sure to share the team’s work and results with senior leadership, always giving credit to teammates when due. Leaders need to stand with their teams when mistakes are made, and celebrate the people or teams who make positive contributions.

As Simon Sinek says

A leader should not take credit when things go right if they are not willing to accept responsibility when things go wrong.

Ultimately, psychological safety in the workplace is about providing a safe space for employees to be their full selves and not to feel that they will be punished or humiliated for expressing their opinion, ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. Core values of honesty and respect will support this healthy framework.