One of the most consistent findings in organizational behavior over the last decade has been just how significantly team performance is affected by psychological safety. A psychologically safe team is one where team members feel comfortable being themselves, expressing their ideas and opinions, and taking risks without fear of being punished or ostracized. Teams with high psychological safety learn faster, communicate better, and hence collaborate more effectively.
At its core, psychological safety is marked by a sense of mutual trust and respect. And these are two different things. Trust is how much teammates feel they can share their authentic selves with others. Respect is how much teammates feel the team will accept that self. If I trust you, then I will share honestly with you. If you respect me, then you will value what I’ve shared.
In this article, we’ll cover four ways to create a more psychologically safe team—with the first two focusing on trust and the second two on respect.
Be Vulnerable First
The first way to build a psychologically safe team is to be vulnerable first. This is a powerful way to build trust because trust on a team grows reciprocally. When someone makes themselves vulnerable, they signal to the team that they’re trusting the team. And teammates feel trusted and respond in a trustworthy manner (most of the time). This cycle repeats itself over time and trust grows alongside it. As a leader, that means it falls upon you to demonstrate trust first by being vulnerable first. You don’t need to share embarrassing secrets or your deepest fears, but a simple “I don’t know” when discussing a problem or a simple sharing of a few weaknesses can be an important moment in the development of trust on your team. Don’t make people earn your trust. Trust them and let them respond with trustworthiness.
Accept (but learn from) Failures
The second way to build a psychologically safe team is to accept (but learn from) the team’s failures. Failures on a team can’t be avoided—and they can’t be ignored. You’ll have to deal with repeated failures or performance issues, but often unexpected failures get overlooked (or worse). Projects sometimes run over budget, clients change their mind, global pandemics threaten the supply chain and force everyone to work at home in their pajamas. When failures happen, the human reaction is to deflect or excuse away failures. So, when teams face failures, they often fight over who is to blame. But psychologically safe teams recognize failure is a learning opportunity and see honest conversations about what happened and what can be changed in the future to prevent failures. As a leader, take your team through an after-action review when failures happen and celebrate any moments of honesty or responsibility you see. Doing so sends the message that failure is feedback—not something to be deflected.
Model Active Listening
The third way to build a psychologically safe team is to model active listening. This helps teammates feel respected, the other side of psychological safety. Leaders don’t have to accept every idea their team shares to build respect, but they do have to ensue every teammate feels listened to. And modelling active listening not only ensures you’re listening to the team—it also teaches the team by example how to listen better to each other. Make sure you’re actively focused on the person speaking, not looking at a phone or laptop. Nod your head and utter small “hmms” and “ahhs” to show you’re responding and processing what you hear. Follow up with questions based on what you heard that signal listening and encourage them to expound on their ideas. And before you offer your thoughts, summarize what you heard them say to confirm that you understand. Doing so will ensure the other person feels listened to—because you were actually listening.
Treat Conflict As Collaboration
The fourth way to build a psychologically safe team is to treat conflict as collaboration. It’s difficult to model active listening when the person speaking is sharing an idea or action in conflict with something you’ve previously said. It’s hard to actively listen when in conflict because you’re wanting to jump in and defend your original idea. But for building respect, it’s crucial to remember that task-focused conflict is a form of collaboration. People who disagree with their teammates aren’t (usually) saying their teammates are dumb, they’re saying they see the situation differently and care enough to share. Resist the urge to shoot down the conflicting idea, and use the questioning time during active listening to ask questions about the assumptions made or information that leads this person to a different conclusion. Meet conflict with curiosity about how they concluded something different than you. You’ll not only maintain respect, you’ll often find out that their way is a better solution anyway.
Looking at these actions collectively, it’s easier to notice the interplay between trust and respect that leads to a psychologically safe team. Trusting moments need to be met with respect, otherwise they might trigger distrust. But when teams develop both simultaneously, they start to share diverse perspectives and generate better ideas—and they gradually become a team where everyone can do their best work ever.
About the author
David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.