What Team Psychological Safety Is and Why It Matters



A group of multiethnic women are seated in white plastic chairs around a long white conference table with rounded edges. One stands in front of a poster attached to a floor-to-ceiling window. The poster displays notes about the customer journey, and she is pointing a marker at it. At the head of the table is a large monitor topped with a webcam and set to its screensaver. The table is topped with stacks of books, laptops, and various office supplies. Glass windows along two sides of the white-walled room reveal a larger office. Demonstrating team psychological safety, the women in the conference room appear to be engaged and working together to generate ideas.

Tania, the team lead, lays out a new process for the team to follow. Fatima sees an efficiency improvement but doesn’t say anything. Nigel feels disrespected that Tania didn’t consult him about his field of expertise. Sam wonders how the process will affect other teams but shows enthusiasm for Tania’s plan. Denise thinks the timeline is far too tight and asks how hard the deadline is. Tania says the deadline is a priority. What’s missing from this team? Psychological safety.

Imagine how much better Tania’s new process would be if Fatima were to share her ideas, Nigel were to weigh in with his subject-matter knowledge, Sam were to pose the question about the change’s effect on others, and Denise were to provide constructive criticism about the rollout. What can Tania do to build an environment of team psychological safety?

Read on to learn what psychological safety is and why it matters so much in teams.

What Is Team Psychological Safety?

Safety is a basic human need. In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow published a theory that humans are motivated by the instinct to satisfy their needs.1 After meeting physiological needs such as food and water, humans seek to satisfy the need to feel safe. Someone who does not feel safe will likely pursue safety until it is achieved.

Psychological safety is the perception of whether it is safe or risky to show the authentic self. Originally, psychological safety referred to an individual’s perceptions about whether authenticity would cause negative social consequences; the definition evolved to encompass a team’s commonly held perceptions.2

Leadership researcher Amy C. Edmondson defines team psychological safety as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”3 A team has psychological safety when all members hold similar positive beliefs about interpersonal trust, inclusion, and mutual respect.

Another definition of psychological safety from Timothy Clark holds that psychological safety is established in four consecutive stages. He calls it “a condition in which human beings feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo.”4 These four stages are achieved only in absence of fear of social reprisal like embarrassment, disrespect, or punishment.

While it may be self-evident that team members who work from trust and respect instead of fear are happier, more productive workers, let’s explore exactly why psychological safety is so integral to high-performing teams.

Why Psychological Safety Matters in Teams

A team is three or more people who share a common goal, common leadership, and success or failure. Team psychological safety contributes to learning, innovation, productivity, and many other positive outcomes. Here are three reasons why organizations and leaders should prioritize team psychological safety.

Employee Retention

Team psychological safety increases employee retention.

According to data from Pew Research Center, 89% of Americans say that creating a safe and respectful workplace is essential.5 Yet McKinsey survey data indicate that only 43% of respondents describe their team as having a positive climate, one factor in team psychological safety.6

A toxic corporate culture—one characterized by disrespect; lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion; abuse; and unethical actions—is 10.4 times more likely than compensation to contribute to turnover.7 Toxic disrespect at work is a major reason employees leave, so a psychologically safe environment can mitigate a major driver of attrition.

Productivity

Team psychological safety improves productivity.

Team psychological safety isn’t a guarantee of high productivity, but high productivity doesn’t happen without it. When team members feel psychologically safe, they can bring their energy and drive to bear on solving problems and achieving or exceeding goals. They ask questions, share information, make connections, and explore ideas against a background of positivity and respect toward their colleagues.

Edmondson states that psychological safety enables teams to face and overcome challenges that teams without it cannot. She specifically names the geographic dispersion of virtual teams as an obstacle that psychological safety helps to diminish.8 Other productivity boosts granted by an environment of psychological safety include a positive attitude toward failure in the form of making and reporting mistakes, productive conflict, and boosts in diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Innovation

Team psychological safety fosters innovation.

It’s hard to measure absence. Every time employees don’t voice their thoughts, the potential for innovation is lessened. On the other hand, when employees express half-formed ideas or make spontaneous suggestions, the potential for innovation increases.

It takes courage and trust for team members to start a sentence with “why” or “what if.” When Google researched productivity among its own teams, it found that psychological safety was “critical to making a team work.”9 Teams thrived when they had clear goals, yes, but beyond that, they thrived when people felt free “to be fully present at work.”

Creating a psychologically safe environment starts with leaders. Read on to learn about four ways leaders can build team psychological safety.

Four Ways to Create Team Psychological Safety

Ultimately, the best way to create team psychological safety is to make psychological safety important. If organizational leaders prioritize psychological safety, so will their teams.

Make psychological safety an integral part of the team by taking these actions.

  1. Understand Personality.

    Personality is the driving force behind human behavior. It’s the answer to why we act as we do. Identifying the everyday strengths, potential derailers, and motives and values of every person on the team allows both leaders and team members to understand their reputations—how others perceive them. That’s the first step in strategic self-awareness.

    Understanding personality allows leaders to support team members’ communication and learning styles and to boost engagement. It allows team members to manage their behavior and relate with one another. Personality contributes to psychological safety because it acknowledges the characteristics of the whole person, empowering and encouraging employees to be fully present.

  2. Model Psychological Safety.

    Leaders set the norms for their teams. When leaders model psychological safety with humility, authenticity, and vulnerability, team members feel safe to act the same way.

    Behaviors that contribute to team psychological safety include active listening, seeking feedback, taking responsibility, destigmatizing failure, and showing respect. Leader inclusivity is positively associated with psychological safety and thus unit performance.10

    Leaders who talk about emotions and challenging situations create space for others to share their struggles.9 Leaders who replace blame with curiosity show a learning mindset and effectively deescalate conflict.11 Other positive communication behaviors from leaders, such as refraining from interrupting, thanking people for asking questions and sharing ideas, and using respectful language, can also contribute to team psychological safety.

  3. Select for respect.

    Hire leaders with psychological safety in mind. McKinsey reported that supportive, consultative behaviors contribute to a positive team climate and therefore team psychological safety.6 Leaders who can develop people, build relationships, and leverage diversity, for example, tend to be good at creating psychological safety in teams. These competencies are strongly correlated to personality.

    To build team psychological safety, a leader must be motivated to create an environment of open, positive, team-oriented communication. People who score higher on Affiliation (MVPI) and moderately high on Sociability (HPI) tend to be good at establishing those norms. As well, the Altruistic score (MVPI) is associated with how a leader will treat employees and convey that employees are cared for and that their careers are important.

    Organizations can hire and develop leaders whose personalities tend to be respectful toward others, who care about people, and who are able to inspire others.

  4. Measure psychological safety.

    Only 30% of US workers strongly agree that their opinions seem to count at work.12 This is a dismal statistic for talent professionals and leaders alike. To be intentional about increasing team psychological safety, gather data and set measurable goals.

    Depending on the nature of the team, active listening and regular informal check-ins might be the best data-gathering methods. Surveys and polls could also help gauge the degree of team psychological safety in an organization. The data collection strategy itself is arguably less important than the genuine intention to understand whether employees feel safe to share their opinions.

Remote Team Psychological Safety

The essential nature of team psychological safety doesn’t lessen when the team is hybrid or remote. It’s perhaps even more necessary for leaders of remote, hybrid, or distributed teams to prioritize psychological safety than for in-office team leaders who have the benefit of physical proximity.

The responsibility still lies with team leaders to create an environment of psychological safety in remote teams. Most actions are consistent no matter the type of team, but certain practices around communication can be especially effective virtually. Leaders who share personal and professional challenges with remote or hybrid work open the discussion for employees to do likewise.13 Specifically in virtual meetings, leaders of remote teams should understand the pros and cons of app features such as hand raising, polls, and breakout rooms to maximize the opportunities for participants to share ideas safely.14

To revisit Tania and the new process for her team, inviting and hearing her team’s feedback, ideas, and questions would have improved Tania’s process rollout and built team trust. When a leader communicates with openness and respect, team members can feel more secure in their communication too.

Team psychological safety can not only prevent the loss of employees, efficiency, and creativity, but also add quality to employee retention, productivity, and innovation. When leaders model psychological safety in their behavior, they create space for team members to feel safe to be themselves at work.

References

[1]. Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396. http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Maslow/motivation.htm

2. Newman, A., Donohue, R., & Eva, N. (2017). Psychological Safety: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Human Resource Management Review, 27(3), 521–535. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2017.01.001

3. Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350–383. https://doi.org/10.2307/2666999

4. The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety [Book summary]. (n.d.). LeaderFactor.https://www.leaderfactor.com/4-stages-of-psychological-safety

5. Parker, K. (2018, September). Many Americans Say Women Are Better Than Men at Creating Safe, Respectful Workplaces. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/09/25/many-americans-say-women-are-better-than-men-at-creating-safe-respectful-workplaces/

6. Psychological Safety and the Critical Role of Leadership Development. (2021, February 11). McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/psychological-safety-and-the-critical-role-of-leadership-development

7. Sull, D., Sull, C., & Zweig, B. (2002, January 11). Toxic Culture Is Driving the Great Resignation. MIT Sloan Management Review. https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/toxic-culture-is-driving-the-great-resignation/

8. Edmondson, A. C. (2019). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

9. Duhigg, C. (2016, February 25). What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. The New York Times Magazine. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html

10. Hirak, R., Peng, A. C., Carmeli, A., & Schaubroeck, J. M. (2012). Linking Leader Inclusiveness to Work Unit Performance: The Importance of Psychological Safety and Learning from Failures. The Leadership Quarterly, 23(1), 107–117. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2011.11.009

11. Delizonna, L. (2017, August 24). High Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety: Here’s How to Create It. Harvard Business Review.https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it

12. Herway, J. (2017, December 7). How to Create a Culture of Psychological Safety. Gallup. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/236198/create-culture-psychological-safety.aspx

13. Edmondson, A. C., & Mortensen, M. (2021, April 19). What Psychological Safety Looks Like in a Hybrid Workplace. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/04/what-psychological-safety-looks-like-in-a-hybrid-workplace

14. Edmondson, A. C., & Daley, G. (2020, August 25). How to Foster Psychological Safety in Virtual Meetings. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/08/how-to-foster-psychological-safety-in-virtual-meetings