Why do amazing teams fail? Often it’s not because of lack of talent or missing skill sets, but because people aren’t able to work together in a way that can drive the business forward. The culprit is something you may not think about in a work environment, but should: the lack of psychological safety.
The term “psychological safety” may sound like something your life coach would use. But the concept is gaining steam in the workplace because experts believe it’s crucial to building a collaborative team. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson, who coined the phrase, defines it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Translation: All team members must feel comfortable introducing new ideas and strategies without judgment or repercussion.
Fostering that psychological safety is so important that when Google asked more than 200 of its employees “What makes a team effective?” it was the number one answer (followed by dependability, then structure and clarity).
Still, as any manager of fellow humans can attest, building a culture of trust is easier said than done. Whether you’re a manager or a team member, you can start with these steps.
1. Listen—Really Listen
Team members who believe their managers give their full attention are more likely to make their thoughts known. And those thoughts could be the next big idea or strategy to move your business forward.
That starts with the basics, such as putting your phone away during meetings, making eye contact, and asking questions—then actively listening to the answers. “We’ve found it helpful to have leaders proactively engage people during meetings, as opposed to simply passively waiting to see who contributes,” says Dan Radecki, a neuroscientist and co-founder of the Academy of Brain-Based Leadership.
If you’re the boss, give your thoughts last, since others might be less willing to voice an opinion counter to their manager’s, Radecki suggests. Apply the same attentiveness to one-on-one meetings, either formal (such as performance reviews) or informal (weekly catch-ups). When employees feel truly comfortable with you, they’ll be more likely to approach you with a problem or idea that needs addressing later.
2. Encourage Respectful Disagreements
No team is ever going to agree on everything. The goal is not to eliminate conflict, but to approach it productively, aiming to understand different opinions rather than dismissing them. That allows people to speak authentically, openly, and without fear of repercussion or embarrassment—which lets them collaborate more effectively.
“Healthy conflict ferrets out the bad ideas, surfaces the best, and secures buy-in and commitment,” says John Ward, founder of the Business Traction Center and a business operations consultant who has coached leadership teams for the past 20 years.
Making it a habit to openly discuss issues and problems helps folks feel safe to express their thoughts, even if they’re counter to the team’s, says Justine Figo, a speaker and coach specializing in transformational leadership and psychological safety. The team should consider each opinion or argument without making judgments about the motivation or experience of the person who put it on the table.
3. Own Up to Your Mistakes
Yes, even you are wrong sometimes. And that’s OK! But when you do mess up, you need to come clean. That’s especially important for leaders, but it’s a good habit for everyone.
Being transparent about your own failures and mistakes, as well as your ability to move forward and grow from them, builds trust, Figo says. When your team sees that you’re not scared to acknowledge a flub, they’ll have less fear about making or admitting mistakes of their own.
Being able to work without fear provides the psychological safety required to take risks and develop and implement original ideas, she notes. When team members don’t feel the need to minimize their mistakes, the entire team can learn from any missteps and move forward together.
4. Shut Down Negativity
Nothing kills trust like disrespect and negativity among team members. “When we encounter disrespectful behavior toward us, it challenges our brain’s need for fairness and esteem, two very powerful drivers to be happy,” says Radecki. “This situation then causes us to disengage from that person and destroys our ability to trust them.”
So pay attention to the way that you’re delivering feedback or criticism: While it’s important to give folks feedback on the areas in which they can improve, focusing entirely on mistakes or problem areas can damage people’s sense of psychological safety. Try to frame the conversation in a neutral, constructive way—this can help reduce the emotional reaction of the person receiving the feedback, making it less likely their psychological safety will suffer, notes Radecki.
This also comes into play in the way that a team refers to co-workers or clients who aren’t on the team. If you trash talk a client or colleague in front of your team, or allow other team members to do so, they may wonder whether you do the same about them when you’re not there.
“You may not have ill will or bad intentions, but you still need to have self-awareness,” says Radecki. “Once you have the ability to step back and see how your words are impacting another person, you realize when your approach may not be beneficial.”
5. Be Silly
Yep, you read that right. Playfulness is important, even in a professional environment. “Finding ways to be joyful or laugh or do something a little bit fun is a safe and bonding way to be a little more vulnerable around each other,” says Figo.
Look for ways to invite your team to participate in things that might be a little uncomfortable, suggests Figo. Depending on your company culture, you might invite everyone to wear themed clothing one day (think crazy socks or ’80s sweaters) or take a break as a group to play a board game in a conference room. “That shows that you can let your guard down. Creating positive emotions together helps build that psychological safety.”