A two by two matrix showing psychological safety (PS) on vertical and motivation/accountability (MA) on horizontal Low PS/low MA = apathy High PS/low MA = comfort Low PS/high MA = anxiety High PS/high MA = learning

Leadership Toolbox: how to create psychological safety at work

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Have you ever wondered why some teams thrive in difficult times? They trust one another, freely share knowledge, admit mistakes and generate creative and innovative ideas at the drop of a hat.

Two brown goats butting heads
Image source: Pexels

Others spend their time covering up mistakes, concealing information from bosses and colleagues, and pretending they know everything. Then they wonder why they don’t get the results they want. They are characterised by cut-throat competition, where only the strongest can survive.

Psychological safety is a key factor in the way that teams work together and produce results. This post explains the concept of psychological safety, its benefits, and how to go about developing it with the teams you work in and lead.

What is psychological safety?

The term was coined by Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School. She defines it as “a shared belief amongst group members that the group is a safe place to take risks, admit mistakes, and learn new things”. That is, it’s OK for a group member to be vulnerable, speak up, ask questions, and try new things, because the group will continue to accept him or her. And more than that, the team will embrace questions, mistakes, ideas, and critiques of the status quo as avenues for learning and growth.

When we lack psychological safety, we function poorly. Mistrust, suspicion and self-preservation rule the roost. But when we have it, we can be our very best selves: creative, engaging, able to learn, productive, resourceful, curious and inventive.

The benefits of psychological safety

Image source: Pexels

Cultures with higher levels of psychological safety are associated with higher levels of team performance. This makes intuitive sense – if you don’t feel safe around your colleagues to ask questions, make mistakes and learn from them, then you’ll almost certainly waste time and energy trying to hide your uncertainty and cover up your mistakes.

Psychological safety supports a team or organisational culture where people:

  • share information and knowledge
  • suggest organisational improvements
  • take initiative to develop new products and services
  • learn from their mistakes and those of others

Culture-building takes time

Edmondson found that psychological safety is made up of three factors: shared interpersonal trust, respect for each other’s competence, and caring about each other as people. All three factors must be present for team members to feel safe to speak up, ask questions, and admit mistakes.

Psychological safety isn’t created overnight. It takes time and consistency. So if a leader embraces the admission of a mistake as a path to learning one day, then the next day criticises someone who made a mistake, interpersonal trust is a pipe dream.

Team members also need to respect one another’s competence and care for one another as fellow human beings. This means that climates which pit team members against one another are unlikely places for psychological safety to develop.

What about motivation and accountability?

A two by two matrix showing psychological safety (PS) on vertical and motivation/accountability (MA) on horizontal Low PS/low MA = apathy High PS/low MA = comfort Low PS/high MA = anxiety High PS/high MA = learning
Adapted from Amy Edmondson

Creating trust, respecting competence and caring for one another doesn’t mean that we try to please the people around us or avoid holding people accountable for their actions. We cannot please everyone all the time, and it is imperative to learn from past experiences.

Creating a culture of psychological safety does not negate the importance of motivation and accountability. They are separate dimensions. The gold standard is for you, your team and your organisation to spend as much time as possible in the learning zone (also known as the high-performance zone).

A caveat here: I don’t believe it is possible to stay in the learning/high-performance zone permanently. Over time, a range of internal and external factors will influence the levels of both psychological safety and motivation and accountability. It’s important to recognise when the levels have changed, and implement strategic and tactical responses to move things back in the desired direction. Some pre-planning here will save you hours of heartache and stress when the inevitable happens!

Building a culture of psychological safety through inclusive leadership

A culture of psychological safety can only be built through effective and inclusive leadership. Effective leaders must have self-awareness (read my post about self-awareness here). And there are several other ways to become a more inclusive leader and build a culture of psychological safety, which Amy Edmondson sets out in one of her TED talks.

So, a quick summary of the three inclusive leadership approaches from the video, plus a bonus that Edmondson relates elsewhere in her work:

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution one
    The future is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Mistakes happen because we don’t know enough yet, not because someone did something wrong. We need to learn together, using everyone’s brains and insights. This gives people the rationale for speaking up.
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility
    You need your team’s input because you will occasionally miss something important. Let them know you want to hear from them when you do. This creates safety around speaking up.
  3. Model curiosity
    Ask lots of questions. Check your assumptions. Don’t leap to conclusions. Hold-off major decisions until you’ve gathered your team’s input and perspective.
  4. Embrace the messenger
    Whatever you do, don’t shoot the messenger! The only thing worse than hearing the bad news is not hearing the bad news. Thank them; recognise them; invite them to help solve the problem; promote them. This shows that speaking up is valued.

Four questions to start the conversation with your team

Being an effective and inclusive leader is a great start, but it isn’t enough. To really get the culture moving in the right direction, Jack Herway recommends starting a conversation with your team using the following four questions (in order of presentation).

  1. What can we count on each other for? (this covers values and behaviours)
  2. What is our team’s purpose? (hint: it’s not to make money – that’s a consequence of doing business well)
  3. What reputation do we aspire to have? (not just with external customers, but also your internal customers)
  4. What do we need to do differently to achieve that reputation and fulfill our purpose?

As team members develop a conversation based on these questions, they build trust and respect for each others’ strengths and get a sense of what it means to be a team working towards a common purpose. Over time, this develops into a climate of openness, and a feeling of shared responsibility to learn and grow together.


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Posted by Daria Williamson

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[…] a culture that embraces learning, risk-taking (appropriately, of course), and experimentation. Psychological safety is a huge component of this sort of […]

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