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  • Writer's pictureJason R. Waller

How to Build Psychological Safety (and High Performance) in Your Team

The research is clear and compelling: psychological safety is one of the most important factors in developing high-performing teams. There is no shortage of articles, podcasts, and TED Talks to drive home the value of psychological safety, what I call team trust.

But how do we get more of it into our teams on a day-to-day basis?

Here, I outline some of the things I’ve learned (sometimes through failure) about what diminishes and what develops team trust. This isn’t a how-to guide. This is meant to be a thought provoker, an entry point into a powerful inquiry. And a hard look at how we show up with our teams.

What is psychological safety and why does it matter?

Psychological safety is really just the individual idea of trust expanded into a team and its norms. And this idea of team trust has some big implications on outcomes.

Research by Amy Edmondson and her team found that teams with strong psychological safety had higher metrics for team performance, employee engagement, employee wellbeing, and innovation, while similarly having lower error rates and turnover.

Project Aristotle, a multi-year internal Google study to understand why some teams succeed and others fail, came to a similar conclusion: psychological safety was the number-one predictor of their highest-performing teams.

The description in the image above is worth repeating: “team members feel safe taking risks and being vulnerable in front of each other.” That’s what trust is all about, about taking the risk to be hurt. When team trust is high, people take those risks. They raise their voice, offer their opinions, and bring the most real version of themselves to work.

So, again, how do we get more of it? There are a lot of ways to organize the different ideas of what underpins team trust, but I’ve left it at four:

  1. Courage

  2. Curiosity

  3. Collaboration

  4. Conflict

Let’s explore each to get some ideas on what could diminish and what could develop each.

1. Cultivate courage

When we talk about courage, this is really speaking to the “vulnerability” part of psychological safety. People feel brave enough to raise their voice, even if they’re scared or uncomfortable.

There are a lot of opportunities here as a leader to cultivate this courage and vulnerability. Role model what it looks like and set the example. I’ve been working hard at being more open with my emotions because I see how much it invites others to do the same. It’s not easy for me, but it is rewarding.

Diminishers of team trust

  • Says “everything’s fine”

  • Minimizes mistakes

  • Avoids responsibility

  • Demands perfection

Developers of team trust

  • Asks for help

  • Owns mistakes

  • Seeks responsibility

  • Expects growth

The themes here center around how vulnerable we are individually and how we encourage or discourage that vulnerability in others. How do we deal with the responsibility? How do we ask for help or raise our own voices? What do we do that helps people show up and speak up?

2. Invite curiosity

This is the “openness” part of psychological safety. It’s about helping people feel less scared and less uncomfortable with raising their voice over time.

This is built on a focus on the problem, not the person. Curiosity and a growth mindset means that people learn, after some experimentation, that they are safe to share their ideas. The burden of courage, then, diminishes as people realize that there is nothing to be afraid of.

Diminishers of team trust

  • Failure is unacceptable

  • Asks “can we?”

  • Focuses on failures

  • Talks about character

Developers of team trust

  • Sees failure as a learning

  • Asks “how could we?”

  • Looks for what went well

  • Talks about behavior

A key message here is in minimizing retribution for failure and avoiding shame for having new or different ideas. One note: “Can we?” feels like a harmless question, and in some contexts it is. But the danger of only focusing on goals and progress is that we miss the opportunity to collaborate. Until we stand beside someone to ask “How could we?” we don’t encourage any real discussion.

3. Foster strong collaboration

This is less about how we are as individuals, as leaders, and more about how we respond in a team. Collaboration is about working together, in harmony.

Communication is key here. Honesty and directness form the backbone of trust-based collaboration. It’s one of the areas that I work on the most, not because I’m dishonest or indirect (okay, sometimes I’m indirect), but because I often just choose to do things on my own. I’ve gotten the feedback that people feel left out, and even if I thought it was the right thing to do in the moment it creates longer-term harm going forward.

Diminishers of team trust

  • Passive-aggressive

  • Focused on self

  • Tends to do tasks alone

Developers of team trust

  • Speaks directly

  • Puts team before self

  • Trains and coaches

Another lens here is self- versus team-orientation. Do you act like the smartest person in the room or do you act like the room has the smartest people in it? Is a new problem an opportunity for you to get your hands dirty or an opportunity for you to grow someone in your team?

4. Foster healthy conflict

Things are not always in harmony. Healthy, positive conflict is about working together in disagreement.

Conflict is okay. Let’s say it again, conflict is okay. But combat isn’t.

Conflict is defined as “to come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition.” If you’re not disagreeing from time to time, chances are there’s not much diversity in the team. Again, focus on the problem, not the person. The idea, not the individual.

Diminishers of team trust

  • Hardens during conflict

  • Focuses on differences

  • Listens to respond

  • Waits to tension to fade

Developers of team trust

  • Softens during conflict

  • Seeks common ground

  • Listens to understand

  • Boldly addresses tension

How do you respond when being challenged on an idea? How do you thoughtfully challenge someone else on theirs? This can be the hardest area for some people, because disagreement is steeped in social and cultural norms.

In closing

We looked at diminishers and developers of psychological safety, or team trust, across four factors. These four are not necessarily linear, and there is some overlap.

  1. Courage

  2. Curiosity

  3. Collaboration

  4. Conflict

Which ideas stood out to you? Which area did you feel most drawn to? Better yet, which area did you feel uncomfortable looking into?

My hope is that we can take something away from this reflection. Here’s an idea: right now, take another look through the diminishers and developers.

Of all the diminishers, what’s one that you can commit to working on, to softening? How will you do it and who can keep you accountable? Mine was “Tends to do tasks alone.”

Of all the developers, what’s one that you can commit to working on, to bringing more into your life? How will you do it and who can keep you accountable? Mine was “Asks for help.” Similar to my diminisher, but a different approach.

You can also come up with your own commitments, these are just ideas and thought-starters. I’d love to hear what you take away from this and what you choose to do. Please share, and good luck on the journey.

Originally published in The Startup


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