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Creating Psychological Safety in Your Teams


Key Takeaways

  • To create a high-performing team, make sure you have a high level of psychological safety in your team, where people feel free to express their questions, concerns, ideas and mistakes.
  • To increase psychological safety in your team, one activity you can do is to have totally silent online brainstorming sessions to ensure that everyone’s voice is included.
  • To improve trust and psychological safety in your team, create opportunities for your team members to get to know one another at a personal level. One way to do this is by asking a personal question to every person in a meeting.
  • To make it safe for employees to make mistakes, allow improvable, complex, and intelligent mistakes in your team and foster a culture of learning from mistakes.
  • To have a successful journey of psychological safety, make sure that awareness, interest, knowledge, ability and sustainability aspects of the journey are addressed. 

Once I dared to ask a question to a senior manager, his reply was: “That is a stupid question!” At that moment, I did not know what to do. I felt powerless. Since then, I was afraid to ask him a question. What is worse is that many employees in that company started to imitate that senior manager. “That is a stupid question!” was their reply, when you asked them a question. It was a toxic workplace with a very low level of psychological safety. 

Psychological safety is a work climate where employees feel free to express their questions, concerns, ideas and mistakes. In this article, you will learn practical ideas, interesting stories, and powerful approaches to boost psychological safety in your team.

The relationship between psychological safety and high-performing teams

Psychological safety is a work environment where employees feel free to express their questions, concerns, mistakes, and ideas. We cannot have high-performing teams without psychological safety.

I was one of the first employees of Facebook in Europe. At that time especially, Facebook was super innovative and had a very high level of psychological safety in the workplace. Many teams were high-performing. Facebook knows that psychological safety is key to successful teams. 

First of all, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, tries his best to create a psychologically safe workplace. One of his practices at Facebook is the weekly all-hands meeting where every employee in the company can attend and ask their questions directly to Zuckerberg. This creates openness and transparency which is crucial in high-performing teams.

Secondly, ideas can come from any employee at Facebook. You notice a problem to solve, you have an idea. You can create a business case and show how you can solve it regardless of your seniority or position in the company. Facebook has empowered employees to take initiatives and make an impact. You can take initiatives especially when there is psychological safety to share your ideas in the first place.

Thirdly, the way feedback is shared plays an important role in psychological safety. The research of John Gottmans and Prof Barbara Fredrickson [Ref 1] shows that high-performing teams have a ratio of three to five positive feedback for every negative feedback. Actually, that was my experience at Facebook. Feedback has been very frequent and mainly positive in the workplace. This contributes to creating psychologically safe teams.

Exploring psychological safety in your team

Let’s say you have a team meeting and ask your team members: “What are your concerns about this project?” Then, your team members are totally silent. This can be a red flag. It is likely that employees do not feel safe to share their ideas.

Amy Edmondson, a leading researcher on the topic of psychological safety, created a list of statements to see to what extent your team is psychologically safe. 

Below you can see the statements. Please take a pen and paper, or write on your laptop, and in the next three minutes evaluate each and every statement below as “strongly disagree”, “disagree”, “neutral”, “agree” or “strongly agree”. 

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  2. Members of this team are not able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is not safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. Members of this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills & talents are not valued

If you evaluated all the statements above as “strongly disagree”, it means that your team has a very high level of psychological safety. Congratulations! In case you evaluated all the statements above as “strongly agree”, it means that your team has a very low level of psychological safety and there are many areas of improvement to make your team more psychologically safe.

How to increase psychological safety in remote teams

Many teams are currently working remotely. In order to create psychological safety in remote teams, I have used these two approaches and they have worked wonderfully. 

Approach 1: Inclusion is a cornerstone of psychological safety. In order to ensure that everyone is included for instance in online brainstorming sessions, I request that the teams I work with write their ideas in a given amount of time and without talking to one another. Normally, in brainstorming sessions one or a few people dominate the discussion. Without talking everyone can write their ideas and everyone is included. I used this approach with the technology team of a leading car manufacturer and the feedback was very positive. Participants loved that everyone had a space to express their ideas fully. 

Approach 2: Once team members get to know each other, they are more likely to trust one another. That can positively influence psychological safety in a team. In the beginning of online meetings, I ask short personal questions to team members such as: “What was the best concert you have ever been to? And what made that concert so special to you?” Everyone responds to that question. It is fun to talk about music, it creates a positive atmosphere in the team and allows team members to get to know one another. It is very difficult to create psychological safety if team members do not know each other at a personal level.

Constructive conflict is a component of psychological safety 

Imagine working in a team where all team members say “yes” to every idea. They do not challenge each other at all. This team cannot innovate with this mindset. On the other hand, let’s say you are in a team where team members criticize each other all the time. They complain and focus only on the negative aspects of any idea; they argue all the time. It is likely that this team cannot progress. 

Constructive conflicts are about free flow of information. You think differently about a topic than I do. We listen to each other, understand each other’s viewpoints and try to find solutions to problems. We have a civilized discussion without attacking each other. This is the essence of constructive conflicts. 

Previously, I collaborated with a colleague at a global company. We were working together to solve a big issue in order to improve user experience. We were challenging each other a lot, asking questions to one another, approaching the problem with a very curious mindset, and feeling safe to share our feedback. In the end, we created an innovative solution to the problem. We achieved that, because we embraced constructive conflicts.

In order to invite opposing views and have a constructive conflict, you can ask this question in a team meeting: “Who thinks differently that I do on this topic?” Through constructive conflicts, you can include diverse perspectives and have a higher chance of innovating.

Fostering a culture of learning from mistakes

Successful organisations allow certain mistakes to happen. It is crucial that we distinguish between four types of mistakes and know how to deal with them. This way, we can foster a culture of learning from mistakes. I created the first two mistake types below inspired by the research of Amy Edmondson and the last two mistake types are taken directly from Amy Edmondson’s book “The Fearless Organization”.

Unacceptable mistakes: When an employee does not wear a safety helmet in a factory in spite of all the training, resources, support, and help, and suffers an injury, that is an unacceptable failure. Gross misconduct at work can also be an example of an unacceptable mistake. In that case we can respond with a warning or clear sanctions.

Improvable mistakes: Putting a product or a service in front of our customers to find out its shortcomings and get customer feedback is an example of an improvable mistake. The idea is to learn areas of improvement of that product or service in an effort to make it better.

Complex mistakes: These are caused by unfamiliar factors in a familiar context, such as a severe flooding of a metro station due to a superstorm. We can analyse such mistakes to prevent them from happening again.

Intelligent mistakes: These are about totally new ways of entering into a new area. For instance, we launch a path-breaking new product or service and it is not that successful in the market. We learn from this experience and next time we strive to improve the product/service. We can celebrate such intelligent failures.

Effective leaders do not automatically punish anyone making a mistake. Unacceptable mistakes should not happen in the first place. Should they happen, they should happen rarely. Successful leaders allow improvable, complex and intelligent mistakes. What is more, they celebrate only intelligent mistakes. When I was working at Facebook, most of the managers were role models in this area. They were creating a safe space for employees to make improvable, complex, and intelligent mistakes, learn from them and improve. 

Empowering teams

Based on my experience working in and with path-breaking organisations, you can empower your teams in many ways, three of which are:

Share information with your own team members and foster sharing within teams: Employees at lower levels are the ones closest to your customers or target groups. Make sure to share as much information as possible with employees. The information should be related to employees’ work. This way, your employees can come up with ideas to solve your customers’ or target groups’ issues. This openness also strengthens trust in the team.  

Allow teams to share information with other teams: Once different teams know other teams’ work and share information with one another, they can see more clearly how they contribute to the same mission of an organisation. This way, teams can collaborate cross-functionally in an effective way and prevent silos. Teams experience empowerment when they can easily talk, share experiences and collaborate with other teams in an effort to add value to their customers.

Incentivize taking initiatives: If empowerment or taking initiative is part of a company culture, make sure that leaders are role models here. Also, empowerment or taking initiative can be included in employees’ individual goals and performance reviews. Employees who add value to (internal/external) customers as a result of taking initiative can be incentivized with promotions, a bonus, or recognition, among other ways. 

Psychological safety is a journey

At a personal level, psychological safety is a journey of five levels. I call them AIKAS, which is inspired by the Prosci ADKAR model. AIKAS stands for Awareness, Interest, Knowledge, Ability, and Sustainability.

First, we need to be aware of the level of psychological safety in our teams. Without awareness, we cannot change anything. Oftentimes, I am approached by middle managers of organizations who ask me: “Our senior managers are not interested in the topic of psychological safety. What can we do?” “To what extent are senior managers aware about the level of psychological safety in their organization?” is my question back to middle managers. Awareness is the first step.

Once we are aware, we need to be interested in improving psychological safety. To see your level of interest, you can answer this question from 1 (very low) to 5 (very high): “To what extent am I interested in improving the level of psychological safety in my team?”

Being interested is not enough. It is important that we have knowledge about how to enhance psychological safety in our team. We can acquire that knowledge through training, books, and conferences, just to name a few. This way, we learn practical insights to boost psychological safety.

The next step is to put into practice what we know and make a difference at work. Bill Cates, Hall of Fame speaker, once said: “Knowledge is worthless…Make sure you do something with it. Apply it, so that it becomes powerful.”

Lastly, we need to sustain our behavior or the work climate that contributes to psychological safety. Psychological safety is a dynamic concept; the level of psychological safety in a team can go up or down over time. Therefore, we need to continuously work on maintaining a high level of psychological safety in our teams. Let’s contribute to creating psychological safety at work. We can achieve this!


  1. John M. Gottman and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999); and Barbara L. Fredrickson, “The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 359, no. 1449 (2004): 1367

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