Psychological Safety — The What, Why, and How For Leaders

Scott Henderson
6 min readSep 15, 2020

Are people silent in your meetings? Do you have the feeling they try to avoid you? Do they seem to always agree with you?

If you answered yes to these questions then you will benefit from cultivating psychological safety within your team.

Defining psychological safety at work

Psychological safety is when people believe the environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It’s when people feel comfortable speaking their true thoughts and feelings because they know others will not critically judge them. It’s also the experience of not feeling like you need to prove yourself or impress others. You can just be you.

Psychological safety is not —

  • Avoiding conflict or just being nice
  • Making sure everyone gets the same amount of praise and support all the time
  • Having comfortable goals

It benefits teams by—

This is a great three-minute Saturday Night Live case study by Charles Duhigg. The real-world application might help.

Psychological safety is arguably the most important thing a leader can cultivate within their team. So how can you create an environment where your team is psychologically safe? Here are five actionable things you can do today.

1. Thoughtfully plan, prepare, and forecast

“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” — Alexander Graham Bell

People notice when the person leading the meeting has invested time and energy in planning it. People also appreciate when an agenda is shared with the group beforehand.

We experience anxiety when the future is uncertain — even subconscious mild forms you wouldn’t expect (like ambiguities about a work meeting) can cause people to behave in counterproductive ways.

Providing a roadmap for the immediate future reassures team members that they are in a purposeful meeting and that their engagement in the meeting will not go unappreciated. Agendas and forecasts can be as simple as this —

  1. Greeting
  2. Purpose of the meeting
  3. Project updates
  4. Discuss and diagnose issues/problems
  5. Assign tasks and plans moving forward
  6. End the meeting

2. Model vulnerability

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.” — Brene Brown

It wasn’t until recently that vulnerability became a topic of consideration in the workplace — however, some people still associate vulnerability with weakness or insecurity. In reality, a leader who shows they are imperfect through vulnerability and encourages team members to do the same demonstrates self-confidence and strength. They also have higher-performing teams.

Google’s Project Aristotle illustrates vulnerability boosts psychological safety. The referenced article shares a story about a team leader named Matt Sakaguchi who wanted his team to be fulfilled by their work. Matt began an off-site meeting by asking everyone to share something about their personal lives.

Matt shared he had stage four cancer. The team had been working with him for 10 months and had no idea. Matt’s vulnerability rippled to the rest of the team as teammates followed his example and shared some of their own health struggles and recent breakups.

These moments helped the team more easily discuss work-related issues that had been bothering them. Consequently, they all agreed to a new plan that would help them all work more effectively and better enjoy working together.

When leaders demonstrate they don’t shy away from emotional conversations, they communicate no one is expected to figuratively put on a mask when coming to work.

3. Have clearly defined goals.

“Not having a clear goal leads to death by a thousand compromises.” — Mark Pincus

Team members can often be grouped into four categories depending on their knowledge of and commitment to the team’s goals. See the 2x2 below.

The best teams are made up of people who land in the green quadrant. Members in the red quadrant are likely distracting from progress, OR they are aware of something you have yet to understand — make sure you talk to them about what is going on.

Individuals in the yellow quadrant might be new to the team or are simply committed to the organization. An easy conversation can move them from the yellow quadrant into the green.

Those in the grey quadrant are mysteries. Clarify goals with them and make plans to motivate this group. When you take the time to educate team members or even co-create goals with them, you cultivate psychological safety and the team begins performing at higher levels.

4. Establish clear roles

“…when you assume you make [an] ASS of U and ME” — Felix Unger

The same principles for having clearly defined goals directly apply to establishing roles. Team members who know exactly what their roles are can commit to their work. Those who are already committed, but need to be told what to do, need clarification.

One mistake leaders make is assuming their direct reports know exactly what they are supposed to do. Sure, individuals know their formal titles and job descriptions but leaders need to have a conversation about the specifics of their role and how they help accomplish the team's goals.

You might find the granularity somewhat frustrating — just know people experience less psychological safety when they have to make assumptions about their role. Someone once said, “teach in a way not so they understand you, but so they don’t misunderstand you.”

5. Institute rules and talk about norms

“We learn the social norms of our society and modify our behavior accordingly.” — Jane Goodall

How do we learn about social norms or the rules of society? It’s usually through experience. A parent teaches us or a close friend gives us some advice after we try something new.

Think about a baseball game. The explicit rules enable players to effectively play the game — these are taught. The norms, such as jogging around the bases after hitting a home run, adds another layer to the game we don’t really think about — these are the undiscussed/unofficial rules.

Imagine if someone hit a home run and then slowly walked around the bases. The breaking of the social norm would likely confuse us. Not because walking around the bases is bad — but rather because it’s not how things are done around here.

Work is the same way —there are written and unwritten rules that vary by company, department, and team. When individuals have to learn the rules and pick up on the social norms all on their own, they have to perform two jobs.

First, what they were hired to do. Second, figure out the unwritten rules. These distinctly different tasks can cause frustration, stress, and confusion.

Explicitly discussing and deciding on the rules and norms as a team builds psychological safety. The discussion is a shortcut to understanding what is organizationally and socially acceptable or unacceptable. It stops people from worrying about the rules and norms, because they already know them, and enables them to dedicate more brainpower to important work.

In summary —

Psychological safety is arguably the most important thing to cultivate for effective teaming.

Psychological safety leads to multiple positive outcomes.

Leaders can foster psychological safety by —

  • Planning and forecasting
  • Modeling vulnerability
  • Clearly defining team goals
  • Establishing and specifying team roles
  • Instituting team rules and talking about norms

Creating an environment where team members feel psychologically safe should be one of a leader’s top priorities — doing so will greatly impact your influence and make work more fulfilling for your employees.

What can you do now?

Plan three meetings with your team.

Start each meeting with a “check-in” so you can model vulnerability by sharing high- or low-lights from the last few days/week. Ensure everyone participates.

These are the three meetings you should hold —

  1. Goal clarification meeting
  2. Role specifics meeting
  3. Team rules and norms meeting

When you do this your team will move from its current state to a state of feeling more psychologically safe and this will result in greater engagement, crucial learning, and higher performance.

Good luck!

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please feel free to reach out to me with comments, questions, and suggestions. i love talking about this kind of stuff.