When we were kids, we learned so many things from having zero knowledge about them. For example, how to speak our own native language (and then others’), names to call people and things by, who are adults and who are children, what is an animal, the good and the bad, the why of everything 😉 and the list goes on.
Learning these things was a joy. We actually enjoyed the process of going from zero to then being the holder of some information that was going to help us process our experiences in the world. We were hungry to learn more and more and had thousands of questions about everything. We already practiced the 5+ why’s, often annoying our parents.
We loved to learn and to grow, and the changes that learning brought to our lives were for the most part welcomed. The big question is: what happened when we became adults that change became so stressful and anxiety generating? Why did learning and growing and getting out of our comfort zone become something to avoid?
The answer is, we probably learned something we didn’t realize when we were kids: that society didn’t always reward changing. Change became synonymous with risk, fear, and unsafety. Learning something new and growing did not always mean that there was no risk in doing so. If you made a mistake on the way to learning, there could be consequences for that. As a result, we became “knowers” who don’t admit what they don’t know. We started to take less risks, and to become more comfortable and bound by some secure circumstances and certainties we created for ourselves. Within these boundaries, we would generally repeat similar cycles but not truly seek transformative growth or change.
The trouble is less risk-taking leads to less innovation and growth. In order to enable a culture of innovation and growth, we must be willing to inspire and encourage a safe culture of risk-taking. The agile methodology to this is to take a lot of chances, and to make quick, limited impact mistakes. By testing things again and again, you then know what you can continuously improve. This environment mimics the type of circumstances we had as children. Knowing that we can be wrong, that we can make a mistake is a characteristic of psychological safety. Feeling psychologically safe allows us to feel confident in taking risks, managing, and mitigating them, and ultimately learning and growing from what did and didn’t work. We take away the fear of what might go wrong and switch our mindset to one of — even if something does go wrong, that’s good because now I know what to work on.
What is working against this approach is that many aspects of leadership in our current world are based on fear. The predominating leadership style is arguably still one of carrots and sticks: of control, domination, power dynamics, and inducing fear in the direction of some desirable carrot (monetary, title, status, etc). On the bright side, there are many organizations that are now progressing along the curve to being more psychologically safe.
As kids we were vulnerable and innocent, something we were not allowed to be as adults. This is a big mistake that agile organizations in a VUCA world are changing with an intentional culture made of vulnerability-based trust, benefit of the doubt, open-authentic communication and learner mindsets. Particularly high-tech companies, startups, and Fintech companies have created a system of prototyping, testing, and rapid iteration. The smallest companies are starting to eat up what were once the biggest ones through rapid growth and innovation. Key to this is culture and conscious leadership.
The question now is, how can you promote a culture of psychological safety this year — in your family, community, team, and workplace? By inducing a safe environment where people can tap into the child-like play and curiosity they once had, you may likely begin to see outsized results in learning, development, and growth.
Good news: we will finally reverse the course of time and rejuvenate ;-)!

psychological safety - image of a lighthouse beacon in the dark

“A shared belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” Amy Edmonson

As leaders we have heard about the critical role psychological safety plays in team effectiveness. Amy Edmonson first identified the concept back in 1999. In 2012, Google, through its Project Aristotle research (How to build the perfect team)*, concluded that psychological safety is the most important condition for a high performing team.
No one can argue against the importance of providing a safe place and environment for team members to voice their opinions freely without fear of retaliation, punishment or humiliation. This is a key element to team effectiveness and to an environment that prioritizes innovation and agility.
It seems like common sense, and yet in our experience working with different teams across the globe, it is not necessarily common practice. The need to nurture psychological safety is often a blind spot for leaders. It is a perfect example of disconnect between intent and impact in leadership. Most leaders genuinely want to leave a legacy through their people, they act and lead from good intent. Yet how a team interprets the actions and decisions of the leader determines the impact of their leadership.

Leadership behaviors that diminish psychological safety

There are some very visible leadership behaviors that drive disconnect and diminish psychological safety. These are things anyone can identify while observing a team interacting. For example: blaming others, using hostile and aggressive language, dictating what needs to be done, shutting people down, killing another’s ideas, monopolizing the conversation, combative listening, excluding people from conversations.
As well as these very visible behaviors, there are also other, more subtle, behaviors and symbols that diminish psychological safety. These are less visible and ones that we don’t necessarily pay as much attention to, and yet can have the same impact.
The following are some of the most common examples I have observed when working with teams:

  • Missing the connection: Diving directly into the agenda at the start of a meeting without dedicating some time to connect and acknowledge each other’s state of mind.
  • Nonverbal signs: According to research only 7% of messages pertaining to feelings and attitudes are in what we say. The rest of the messages are in facial expressions and tone of voice. Our body speaks louder than our words.
  • The leader opening the conversations and voicing own opinions first: This sets the tone of the conversation for the rest of the team and establishes a hierarchical message that the boss speaks first.
  • Asking rhetorical questions: Asking something with a desired response in mind shuts out other ideas and triggers defensive behaviors.
  • Being spaced out in a meeting: Multitasking, checking phones etc., while other team members are speaking and sharing ideas.
  • Going along with “just kidding” excuses: Playing along and tolerating jokes and topics that could be sensitive to people, possibly leading to feelings of discomfort or exclusion.


How can leaders increase psychological safety in teams?

Much has been said and written about this, adding to Amy Edmonson’s suggestions based on her research. Following are 8 key things I believe every leader should do and pay attention to in order to increase psychological safety:

  • Be aware of your own leadership style and impact on others: Learn how you perceive yourself, and how others perceive your leadership style. Identify your own strengths, derailers and blind spots, and the impact you have on your team.
  • Connection before context, and context before content: Take time to connect and receive each other in each interaction. Then set the intention for your meeting and align on the agenda before jumping into the content of the conversation.
  • Agree on operating principles: These are the rules of the game, they sum up how the team will interact together. Team members must commit to honoring these principles; not only agreeing to comply to them but also to speaking up when any of these principles are not being followed.
  • Balance airtime: Make sure all voices are heard; consciously plan team dynamics to ensure everyone can provide their feedback and contribute to the discussion. Listen and ask clarifying questions to check assumptions before sharing your opinion.
  • Turn feedback into a habit: Ask questions to the team. What’s working? What could make our meetings more effective? How can I help you become more effective? What would you like to see differently in the way we interact? What would help you improve your experience at work? Be prepared to receive others’ points of view without resistance.
  • Address undiscussables: These are the unspoken topics everyone knows about, and team members choose not to address. Put things on the table with compassion and express your truth with honesty and respect.
  • Call out uncomfortable / improper comments: Walk your talk and demand others to comply with your standards. Create an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and respected.
  • Respect and honor your relationships: Make this a priority. Invest time in strengthening your relationships and letting people into your circle of trust. Get to know each other, learn from one another’s journeys and understand how you complement each other.


Creating a safe environment

Psychological safety is not something that can be taken for granted. It can take time to build and seconds to break, and should be part of every leader’s agenda. Creating a safe environment where people can openly express their opinions freely is our ultimate responsibility as leaders.

I was working with a team the other day and one of the members said, “I want to feel it’s OK to say what I am about to say; and if it is OK to say what I am about to say, then I wouldn’t need to ask for it.”
The irony of psychological safety is that you only know you need it when you don’t feel you have it.
What is it?
Psychological safety is a term that describes the phenomena of feeling that it’s OK to take a risk. In my words, I can bear the discomfort of stepping out of my comfort zone in this situation with this group of people.
Research undertaken by Edmondson et al. and Google have found it’s one of the key ingredients in high-performing teams. This research has given us language to describe it and to start thinking about how we can intentionally create it.
The other day in an organization I was working with, I heard two colleagues discussing their manager: “He doesn’t make it psychologically safe for us.” I also hear executives talk about how they need to train their managers in psychological safety.
How do we train for psychological safety? How do we help each other to create the environment for each other to tolerate the discomfort of being vulnerable, of being seen in all our glory and messiness? Depending on our past experience, that can for some of us be almost intolerable. So how do we tolerate the intolerable?
Where does psychological safety come from?
Well, as I see it, it’s partly internal and based on one’s own level of tolerance of the unknown. As to some degree, we can only know it’s safe to take a risk when we have taken one and survived, and we carry that level of internal trust in ourselves around with us wherever we go.
This internal safety level is then heightened by and impacted by the situation we find ourselves in. We have an antenna that reads faces and body language, atmosphere and energy, and makes inferences and draws conclusion. It tells us whether it’s OK or not OK to express ourselves fully.
And it’s an infinity loop as how we are received, then it impacts future decisions, making us more or less confident to take risks in this situation and situations like them. Is that complicated or what?
So how do we create it?
It requires working at the “being” level as well as the “doing” level. Psychological safety is created moment by moment. It’s a felt sense. It often arises out of not feeling safe (i.e., in the bearing of not feeling safe, we find safety — the eye of the storm). It’s not static; it’s dynamic. And it’s not evolving.
What does it require of us?
It requires a mindset of a learner, of deep curiosity, of staying in a conversation with ourselves and others to help each other bear the discomfort of being vulnerable — being in open, transparent communication with each other, in each moment. For example, I can’t make my manager make it psychologically safe, but I can find out what is important to him/her and what he/she needs to feel psychologically safe.
It requires a mindset of taking responsibility for my part in the process and not waiting for someone else to give it to me or do it for me. For example, I don’t wait for the company to organize training on psychological safety. I find out what I can do in every meeting to make it easier for people to take risks.
It involves treating myself and others with kindness and compassion. We are much more likely to take risks if we feel we will be met with kindness — for example, remembering that most people care and want the best for everyone, and if they are behaving badly, it’s because they are scared or hurt.
It involves seeing our interconnectedness and interdependence, realizing that we are all similar in our fears and hopes, yet appreciating that we all have different ways of expressing our true nature in the world.
When we say what is true for us in that moment, we feel liberated and free to do our best thinking, and we became more productive.
What can I do?

  • Not pretend to know when I don’t; I can ask for help. This is difficult, especially when I feel like I should know and I am paid to know.
  • If someone is behaving oddly and creating an atmosphere, I can ask what is important to them. Usually we get defensive and upset when something we care about is at stake, so I can check if something important to them is at risk.
  • I can have check-ins at every meeting, which is an opportunity for everyone to arrive and get present, and to say anything that is concerning them or impacting their ability to be present.
  • I can say if something is concerning me, and that gives permission for others to say the same.
  • I can find a clean way to discuss the undiscussables.
  • I can continuously remind myself that I am human and, as such, I am impacted by others.
  • I can take risks to expand my comfort zone.
  • I can learn breathing and body practices to grow my ability to tolerate the discomfort of feeling unsafe.