Why you need to foster a culture of psychological safety on your team and 3 ways to do it

5 min read

According to a recent survey done by the Center for Management & Organization Effectiveness, managers spend about 30 minutes per day on personal development. For a marketing manager, this could mean learning more about the ins and outs of SEO. An engineering leader may be using this time to refine their skills within a specific framework or language.

Continuing to develop your knowledge as a professional is extremely important, but when it comes to managers, going one step beyond just the hard skills is crucial to ensuring the success of your direct reports. You should also be investing time in learning about how to better manage people, and that includes fostering a culture of psychological safety within your team.

Before we get into it, let’s define what psychological safety is.

What is Psychological Safety?

Harvard Business School Professor, Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” She further defines it as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”

To put it simply…

When psychological safety is high, people tend to feel more comfortable to be their true selves. They’ll open up more about ideas, feedback and generally be happier (which often leads to high productivity, yay! 🙌).

However, when psychological safety is low, then something needs to change. ASAP.

How Google Links Productivity to Psychological Safety

In 2008, Google’s People Innovation Lab wanted to address their management crisis and prove that manager quality in fact does have an impact on employee performance. Thus, Project Oxygen was born. Their research identified 10 common behaviours among their top performing managers. As they rolled out training to the rest of their team, they saw a decrease in turnover, and an increase in employee satisfaction and performance.

  1. 👍 Is a good coach
  2. 🙌 Empowers team and does not micromanage
  3. 🤗 Creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being
  4. 📈 Is productive and results-oriented
  5. 👂 Is a good communicator — listens and shares information
  6. 🤝 Supports career development and discusses performance
  7. 👀 Has a clear vision/strategy for the team
  8. 💻 Has key technical skills to help advise the team
  9. 👥 Collaborates across the organization
  10. 💪 Is a strong decision maker

Based on these findings, Project Aristotle was launched in an effort to identify what dynamics made up an effective team. Their biggest key finding was that is was less about who was on the team, and more about how the team worked together. Number one on that list was psychological safety.

Google project Oxygen Top Manager Traits - Psychological safety is number one

Are you fostering a psychologically safe environment on your team?

How do you know whether or not your team feels comfortable sharing their ideas and thoughts? Ask yourself the following four questions:

  • When you have team meetings, are people speaking up or is the room silent?
  • Are your direct reports giving you ongoing feedback (positive or constructive)?
  • Do people feel comfortable sharing ideas, asking questions, or challenging current processes?
  • Is your team channel (i.e Slack, Microsoft Teams, etc) active or are people only messaging one another privately?

ACTION ITEM: For the next 2 weeks, be more observant of your team and how they interact with not only you, but also with one another. Document your findings over this two week period and review the following week.


How to create a culture of psychological safety on your team

Amy Edmonson, the Harvard professor mentioned earlier presented a Ted talk on Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace. In her talk she highlighted three key areas to focus on. We’ve broken these down:

1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem

Within your organization or team, recognize and be explicit that there’s enormous uncertainty ahead (which holds especially true for those in startup environments), and a high level of interdependence. Use language that will create a rationale for everyone on your team to speak up. An example of this could be:

“We’ve never been here before and we don’t know what to expect. To help us be more thoughtful with our strategy and successful with this experiment, we’re going to need everyone’s voices and perspectives.”

2. Acknowledge your own fallibility

In other words, you’re not perfect and there’s no reason that you need to be. Be honest with your team on where you excel (and where you don’t) so that they feel comfortable enough to do the same. A great way to share this information with your team is through a manager ReadMe (check out some awesome examples here). Edmonson claims that something as simple as recognizing your imperfections will create more safety for speaking up. This can be a statement that as simple as:

“I’m a very forgetful person by nature. I try my best to write everything down and stay on top of it all but if there’s ever a time where you feel that I’ve forgotten something, please remind me. I’m only human after all”

3. Model curiosity

Make it the norm to ask questions. Creating an environment of curiosity will allow your team to engage in more open dialogue and, as time goes by, feel more comfortable speaking among the group. Asking questions also creates a necessity for voice. However, be sure the questions are coming from a curious nature rather than an accusatory one. For example:

  • ✅Are there any blockers that are delaying this project from being completed on time and how can I help remove them?
  • 🚫Your time should have been prioritized better. Can we get this project done this week?
  • ✅What’s the reasoning behind moving forward with this strategy? Is there data to back this up that you can share with the team?
  • 🚫Do you seriously think that this is the best strategy for us? Don’t you think it’s a waste of our resources?

Organizations that focus on fostering a culture of psychological safety experience an increase in employee engagement and satisfaction, as well as a decrease in turnover rates. Companies like Google have proven the impact psychologically safe environments have on productivity through various studies.

It might sound like a daunting challenge, but take the first step in creating this culture at your workplace by simply observing. Pay close attention to how your team communicates, the language you’re using and how your team interacts in your one-on-ones and team meetings. Over the course of a week or two of actively listening and taking notes, you’ll see opportunities to communicate differently in order to engage your team more.