Why Focus on Psychological Safety?
Successful organizations create conditions that help team members perform effectively, solve complex problems in innovative ways, and feel a sense of inclusion and belonging among their colleagues. This requires leaders to foster a high level of psychological safety.
Psychological safety is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” This definition comes from Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, who has been researching psychological safety for decades.
While there is an abundance of research and literature on why it’s important to foster psychological safety, we want to explore the how. What exactly can leaders do to foster psychological safety among team members?
5 Leadership Behaviors that Foster Psychological Safety
Adopting any of these 5 behaviors can have a huge impact on your team’s psychological safety:
1. Welcome Other Viewpoints: “What am I missing?”
As a leader, one of the most powerful things you can do is ask, “What am I missing?” When you ask this simple question, you signal that you are open to looking at things from different angles, and even being challenged.
A leader who regularly asks for other perspectives sets an important tone by signaling that no one has all the answers, and everyone on the team has a valuable perspective worth sharing.
2. Listen to Understand: Develop the Discipline of Not Preparing a Response
When someone speaks, make it a priority to truly understand what they’re trying to communicate. As they talk, don’t think about whether they’re wrong or how you want to respond. Instead, listen with the sole intent of fully understanding their idea or point of view.
Don’t worry — the mere act of understanding someone else’s perspective doesn’t require you to give up your own opinion. Understanding is not agreeing! It’s about letting go of your need to be right and engaging in a battle of arguments. Once you fully understand another person, you can have more productive conversations and deepen the connection.
3. Hit the Pause Button: Model Non-defensive Reactions
In professional settings, it is common to become defensive. We feel attacked, so our brains tend to react as if we’re in physical danger. The fight-flight-freeze reaction takes over, and we may behave in ways that have a negative impact on psychological safety.
During intense moments, notice what you’re feeling and pause. Taking a deep breath can give you time to consider the context and respond in a constructive way. For example, when you feel challenged, ask a curious follow-up question rather than lashing out.
4. Normalize Failure: “This Is New to Us, So We Will Make Mistakes”
Innovation and success cannot happen without failure along the way. That’s why we need to destigmatize failure. Failure is not unacceptable and it doesn’t need to be avoided. It’s a necessary by-product of innovation.
As a leader, make it explicit that the goal is not to prevent or cast blame for failure, but to learn from it. When your team tries something new, emphasize that you expect failure. Say, “This is new, so we won’t get it right the first time.” Or, “Let’s share and learn from our failures.” Team members will feel invited to take risks, try new things, and discuss what they learn. This accelerates innovation.
5. Upgrade Your Meetings: Appoint an Inclusion Booster
Often in professional meetings, only a small percentage of participants feel comfortable contributing. But this means teams are missing out on valuable, diverse viewpoints.
A great way to increase psychological safety in meetings is to appoint someone to play the role of an “Inclusion Booster.” The Inclusion Booster’s job is to invite everyone to participate, make it safe for all to speak up, and ensure dissenting ideas are acknowledged. This person also makes sure that meeting attendees follow the team’s ground rules. These can include, for example, minimizing interruptions and ensuring equal speaking time.
Diving Deeper: What Actions Foster Psychological Safety?
Each of the 5 behaviors we’ve outlined has complexity and nuance. Let’s look deeper into how two of these behaviors can be managed in common workplace situations:
How To Welcome Other Viewpoints
- Declare your interest in feedback
When giving a presentation, rolling out a strategy, proposing an action plan, or floating an idea, explain your reasoning. But make it clear that you are truly interested in feedback from others.
- Set expectations
Tell people explicitly that you do not expect everyone to agree with everything you say. Emphasize that you want to avoid false harmony and groupthink.
- Create space for dialogue
Periodically ask, “What am I missing?” Then wait until others respond.
- Keep the door open
If no one shares feedback, let them know you’re sure you haven’t thought of every angle and you would value their thoughts. You may even want to delay a decision until you hear other perspectives. You’ll need to balance opportunities for gathering input with timely decision-making. But keep in mind that you can do both.
- Express gratitude
When others speak up, openly thank them. For example, say, “I truly appreciate your honest opinion and your willingness to share it. I know it’s not always easy to be a dissenting voice.”
How To Upgrade Your Meetings by Appointing an Inclusion Booster
- Establish ground rules
Communicate meeting guidelines in advance and remind participants about these rules at the start of each session.
- Monitor speaking time and interruptions
If someone is talking too much, politely thank them for their ideas and invite others to contribute. If someone interrupts another participant, you can say something like, “Maria hasn’t finished her thought. Let’s let her finish.”
- Help clarify thoughts that may be unclear
For example, ask people to define acronyms or new terminology so everyone has the same level of understanding.
- Be aware of people who look as if they want to contribute
If someone seems to have trouble jumping in, invite them to speak.
- Ask for alternative points of view
Especially if the group quickly focuses on one line of thinking, intentionally ask participants to suggest and discuss other ideas.
- Be respectful and assertive
If you are the Inclusion Booster, you are the one person who can interrupt when someone else monopolizes the meeting or dismisses another person. Use this power judiciously.
Final Notes on Psychological Safety In Practice
Declaring your workplace “a safe space” doesn’t make it so. Creating and sustaining a psychologically safe work environment is a continuous journey that requires a leader’s time, attention and commitment. It happens over time, through consistent behavior — one conversation and one team meeting at a time.
We encourage you to try even one of the five ideas we’ve shared here. We’re confident that you’ll agree small actions can have a big impact. And small actions repeated over time can have a beautifully positive ripple effect on your team and your organization. Take that first step in your next conversation or your next meeting, and you’ll be moving in the right direction!
EDITOR’S NOTE: In developing this article, Minette Norman collaborated with Dr. Karolin Helbig, a former McKinsey consultant. Together, they also co-authored the recently published book The Psychological Safety Playbook: Lead More Powerfully by Being More Human.