Psychological Safety: What distinguishes strong teams from super strong teams?

Imagine that you are sitting in a meeting, a solution to a problem is presented that you believe could have been solved differently. You start thinking about how you will present your proposal and you wait for your turn to speak. Someone in the group expresses themselves convincingly, and the leader shows little interest in alternative proposals. After a short time, a consensus has formed in the group for the solution that has been presented; it wins without everyone having had their say. Later it turns out that your proposal would probably have worked best in the long run, and you wonder what made you not speak up in that particular meeting. Was it the fear of being wrong or the fear of others’ reactions that held you back from asserting your opinion?

It is deeply human to agree with the leader or the majority’s opinion. But by not speaking up and sharing our opinions or uncertainties, we also deprive colleagues and the company of the opportunity to learn and develop. If one does not dare to assert oneself or be sincere in interactions at work, we can argue that something essential and fundamental is missing to succeed as a team: the experience of psychological safety.

One factor that distinguishes average teams from strong teams is the shared experience of psychological safety. In this article, we explain what psychological safety is and provide some advice on how it can be developed in your workplace.

What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety is about how we interact with each other. It is an experience of being able to speak up, disagree, ask questions, come up with ideas or ask for help without fearing negative reactions in return. You experience being met with goodwill because everyone wants the best for each other and for the task at hand. Psychological safety does not occur on its own, it is something that develops in the interaction between the members of the group.

The concept of psychological safety originates from 20 years ago and has been the subject of interesting research since then. One of the most well-known studies is Project Aristotle conducted by Google in 2016, which aimed to investigate what created effective teams. One of the main findings here was that psychological safety was crucial for the groups’ performance and the company’s profitability. In the study, psychological safety was defined as the experience of feeling safe to take an interpersonal risk and show vulnerability. “If I make a mistake in our team, it is not held against me,” is a quote from this study. Research shows that there is a correlation between psychological safety in the workplace and productivity and performance.

How to build psychological safety in the workplace?

  • Get to know the people you work with. Set aside time to build relationships and a sense of belonging. Take initiative, show engagement, ask, listen and tell. This builds a good foundation for psychological safety.
  • Appreciate ideas, opinions, and contributions. Be curious about what others think and believe. Give and receive feedback in the best sense, and acknowledge input, even when it is criticism.
  • Share knowledge and experiences. We learn from each other and learn from sharing experiences. Therefore, share both what works and what goes wrong.
  • Ask for feedback, input and help. Take initiative and get others’ views on the matter. Try to receive both negative and positive feedback in a good manner.
  • Admit mistakes and show uncertainty. None of us are experts in everything. Be open and share when you are unsure or when you have made mistakes.
  • Show consideration and respect for each other. Psychological safety is not about saying everything you think and feel. Saying whatever you want without thought is careless and can damage the trust needed across the team for psychological safety to work.

Want to learn more about psychological safety? Sign-up for the webinar with Aker Care psychologist Jan-Martin Berge. Read more here.

Podcast: In Good Company. Gjest: Amy Edmundson
Edmondson, A. C., Lei, Z., 2014