How do I create psychological safety?

Being on a team with a high degree of psychological safety just feels good.

But the degree to which a team has psychological safety also has major implications for whether the team functions efficiently or effectively, too.  Data coming out of recent studies has shown that psychologically safe teams actually make fewer errors than psychologically unsafe teams; they also self-report more of their errors, showing a higher degree of transparency.

Psychological safety not only feels good; but it also can improve team performance.

It makes sense, then, that many leaders seek to build psychologically safe teams and that many of us seek to join teams that have psychological safety as a core component of their culture.

This blog post seeks to better define psychological safety and share its root causes and effects so that anyone seeking to build or join a team with a high degree of psychological safety doesn’t have to leave it to chance.


Amy Edmondson, Harvard Professor of Management and Leadership and leader of the above-mentioned studies, defines psychological safety as “not a matter of relaxing standards, making people comfortable, being nice and agreeable, or giving unconditional praise.  It’s fostering a climate of respect, trust and openness in which people can raise concerns and suggestions without fear of reprisal.  It’s the foundation of a learning culture.

In essence — being psychologically safe is the feeling that one can take risks and be vulnerable.

In theory, this sounds easy enough, but in practice, this definition can sometimes come into stark contrast with a results- and outputs-based performance culture. 

Building a learning-based culture based in psychological safety requires a tolerance for challenging authority, upending the status quo, and some risks/failures.

In contrast, a performance/results-based culture often requires conforming to authority figures, over-focus on not taking risks so as not to have any failures, and protecting one’s reputation above all else.

The irony is that a results-based culture often performs more poorly — achieving worse results — than a learning-based culture rooted in psychological safety.

Impact of a Psychologically Safe Culture

One major output of a psychologically safe culture is the ability to draw innovation out.  According to Zach Mercurio, researcher and author on this topic, “innovation is a lagging indicator of psychological safety—you can’t pursue innovation without first pursuing psychological safety.”

There are myriad other benefits, too.  Edmondson and others “contend that this sense of security allows team members to freely communicate, brainstorm, report errors and innovate.”

Psychological safety also effects actual workplace safety.

“In analyses of preventable workplace safety incidents, there is frequently – if not in the majority of cases – evidence that someone had a concern but didn’t speak up about it, or didn’t stop someone from behaving in an unsafe way, because they didn’t feel psychologically safe to do so,” according to Edmondson.

Building a Psychologically Safe Culture

While most leaders understand, at least conceptually, the benefits of a psychologically safe team culture, it’s rarer to see psychological safety become a priority in annual goals or team discussions.

Here are a number of recommendations to incorporate the components and underpinnings of psychological safety into your team environment going forward.

  • Model risk-taking, experimentation and embracing failure.  Talk about the risks you’ve taken and the failures that have resulted.
  • Model embracing feedback.  Share critical feedback you’ve received that you’re appreciative of and are working on.
  • Model vulnerability.  Share what you’re working on personally; share mistakes you’ve made that you’ve learned from; share the things that make you human.
  • Take note of your reward systems.  Are you overly focused on results, or do you reward the inputs, including collaboration?  How do you acknowledge the inputs?
  • Consider having a set of questions you ask of your team members to keep minds open and to encourage challenging the status quo, such as “what leads you to that assumption?  What are the uncertainties in your analysis?  I understand the advantages of your recommendation.  What are the disadvantages?”
  • Ensure there is consistent, judgment-free space for sharing feedback, ideas and concerns.  As a leader, your role in this should ONLY be to listen; any responses you give should solely be questions to gain more understanding, not to rebut.
  • Utilize audit mechanisms to keep up to date on your team’s work progress so that you can utilize 1:1s and team meetings for more vulnerable, developmental discussions.  

What other ways have you found to effectively build a psychologically safe environment for your team(s)?  Share your thoughts in comments below!

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