PotentialSqaured Blog

How can leaders make their team feel psychologically safe?

Milda Zinkus, PotentialSquared


April 7, 2021

When we first went into lockdown during 2020, my regular yoga classes moved to be live-streamed. Once I’d found the right space to practice, I found that I really enjoyed the classes even in splendid isolation. It would have been easy to just go straight to relaxation and meditation for the whole class. However, I found that I actually felt able to take more risks and tried some poses that I wouldn’t have done in a class. I felt safe to take the risk – the instructions were clear, I knew the teachers well, I’d seen some of the poses done before and no one would see me face plant when I inevitably fell over – and I did fall over!

So, what does that have to do with psychological safety? Beyond the obvious importance of being able to work in a physically safe environment, attention in recent years has been drawn to ‘Psychological Safety’, through the work of Amy Edmondson and Tim Clark. What do we mean by psychological safety? Here are a couple of definitions: “Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other” or “Individuals feel safe without the fear of embarrassment or punishment.”

But safe to do what? What does being vulnerable in front of others enable? Or feeling safe not to be embarrassed or punished – of course, we want that, but for what purpose? I’m sure everyone has been in a group or team when you know you shouldn’t speak up or challenge someone. I know I have and I’m not known for my ability NOT to share an opinion! Usually, there isn’t an announcement telling you not to speak up, but you know that your contribution wouldn’t be valued.

Sometimes it’s because we’re unfamiliar with the other people and so we’re not too sure whether to speak or not, but other times it’s because we know we’ll get shut down, or ridiculed, or worse. You just keep your head down until you can get out of the situation. That feeling is akin to being triggered into the fight, flight, or freeze and I know that I’m more likely to freeze until I can escape.

Going back to the point about what feeling psychologically safe enables you to do. It’s more than just being able to show up as yourself – although that in itself is likely to lead to you being more engaged with your team. Feeling safe, secure, and included means that you have a strong foundation from which to admit to mistakes or embrace opportunities to learn. You can challenge – not from a position of criticism – but of wanting to get to the best solution and take risks to innovate and shake things up. Which team or organization wouldn’t want someone to contribute in that way?

What is the key factor in enabling people to feel psychologically safe? All the research identifies the key role of the leader.  In all the work I’ve done with organizations, looking at shaping culture, creating high-performing teams, engaging people with their organization – it always comes back to the leader!

The PotentialSquared model of leadership (Pi2-Leadership) embeds the idea of psychological safety into the behaviors of a Host Leader. Through connecting and engaging with your team, and attracting people to your identity, you form the basis for your team to be effective in its purpose.

But what can you actually do to create a team that feels psychologically safe? This is especially important when we are working remotely.

Listen: Are you only hearing good news? Is your team asking questions? How energized is your team? If the answers are – only good news, no questions, and low energy then you’re not being told things! It’s easy for people to hide when working remotely and your job is to connect, engage, ask questions, listen to the answers and then do all that again, and again and again. A phrase I’ve often found helpful (although according to my son I don’t do this often enough) is ‘ask a question and then shut up and listen!’

React like a grown-up to bad news: How do you respond to bad news? What emotional reaction do you give? How loud is your face? Irrespective of your response when things are going well, your team will actually remember how you react when things aren’t great. The learning opportunity is what your team will remember and will shape how safe they feel in talking to you when things don’t go well.

React positively to challenge: Your team will see how you react to challenge or alternative ideas and opinions. They’ll learn quickly whether it’s welcomed or not. This will shape their choice on whether to speak or to remain invisible. Of course, there will be situations where the time for a challenge has passed (unless it’s a critical safety or high-risk issue) but your default response needs to be welcoming of intellectual friction founded on interpersonal safety. This will enable creativity and innovative thinking.

Admit when you make mistakes: Share your mistakes and your learning. Show how you’ve worked through errors and come out of the other side. Role-model that it’s safe to share your own vulnerability.

There is more you could do, but these are some things to start with. Take steps to create a safe, inclusive space so that your team is happy to try that crazy yoga pose – they may face plant, but they could achieve amazing results – as could you. Namaste!

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