Psychological Safety

The sense of being in a psychologically safe environment is a critical enabler of high performance in teams; it requires your consistent vigilance even in the best of times and certainly is even more critical now.

As I pull together my last newsletter of 2020, I reflect on what a year it’s been: a world-wide pandemic, sheltering at home, hoarding toilet paper, mask mandates, daily marathon Zoom/Teams sessions (while juggling, for some of you, home-schooling and children underfoot 24/7), a contentious Presidential election, COVID cases spiking right before Thanksgiving….who could have predicted all of that?

It’s been a challenging time to be your most effective as a leader – and you have probably experienced that your team needs even more from you now than in normal times.  One of those needs is their knowing – maybe even more so now than in normal times –  that you have their backs and that your team environment is a safe place to speak up, disagree, express fears about the uncertainty we live with, and feel it won’t be held against them.  The sense of being in a psychologically safe environment is a critical enabler of high performance in teams; it requires your consistent vigilance even in the best of times and certainly is even more critical now. Most of the articles and resources cited in this month’s newsletter are about the leader’s role in creating that psychologically safe environment, and it’s hard to overstate the impact such environments can enable.  The very best leaders among us create the conditions that allow and support people in being their best.

Scan these titles quickly, read my short summaries if the titles grab you, and/or delve more fully in places as your time allows.  One last small step I encourage you to take: send me a brief description of action you have taken to increase psychological safety in your team (and it is psychologically safe to share those stories with me as I promise not to use your name or republish them!).


“Change and Loss”

Andrew Stevens, Co-Founder Uncharted Leadership Institute

My Australian colleague, Andrew Stevens, is back in this space with a 7-minute video on the concept of Change and Loss and a provocative question: “How many of us think people resist change?”  Well, do you think people resist change?  Some reading this newsletter will know Andrew from our joint work on the “Transformative Leadership Program,” co-sponsored by the LBJ School at UT Austin and the University of Adelaide, and others will know him through the “Navigating Disruption” program that he and I co-sponsor through Uncharted Leadership.   His video is well worth your watch – thank you, Andrew!

Useful Resources

“High Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s how to Create It.” 

Laura Delizonna, Harvard Business Review, August 24, 2017.
(Note: even without a subscription, you can access a limited number of HBR articles per month)

Comment: “When someone makes a mistake on this team, is it often held against him or her?” “How confident are you that you won’t receive retaliation or criticism if you admit an error or make a mistake?”

How would members of the teams you lead answer these questions?  These are among the questions on Amy Edmondson’s survey of psychological safety (see book review below), and they are referenced in this article as well.  An article referenced in the July newsletter – “SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others” – showed that actions perceived by our brain’s limbic system as threats (e.g. the same things that can cause one to feel unsafe) can actually cause a decrease in perspective, analytical reasoning, and the strategic thinking needed in today’s workplace. Psychologically unsafe environments exact high personal and organizational costs. This article has suggested practices for enhancing the sense of psychological safety.

Key points (mostly in the author’s words):

  • We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe. Humor increases, as does solution-finding and divergent thinking – the cognitive process underlying creativity.
  • Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary.  When conflicts arise, ask “how could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?”
  • Speak human to human. Even in the most contentious negotiations, remember that the other person is “just like me” in that they have beliefs, perspectives and opinions, hopes anxieties and vulnerabilities, and want to feel respected, appreciated and competent – just like me.
  • Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves. “What are three ways my listeners are likely to respond, and how will I respond in each case?”
  • Ask for feedback on your delivery, especially when closing difficult conversations. “What worked and what didn’t in my delivery?” and “How could I have delivered it more effectively?”
  • Periodically assess your team’s perceptions of the level of psychological safety in your environment – and ask (and follow through on) “what could we do to make it better?”

“Influencing Up”

Marshall Goldsmith, Leadership Excellence, July 20, 2010

Comment: Many of the resources in this month’s newsletter are about building psychological safety in your team.  As the team leader, you have a huge influence on enabling such an environment.  If you are on a team where psychological safety is not high, get better at influencing up.  Marshall Goldsmith has been rated for years as one of the top executive coaches in the world, and his book “What Got you Here Won’t Get You There,” is a source of great ideas for developing others.  According to Marshall, knowing how to influence up in a constructive way is often the lowest rated skill on evaluations and assessments of leaders. My experience in working with hundreds of leaders over the years convinces me that almost all of us have room for improvement in this skill. 

Key tips (mostly in Marshall’s words):

  • When presenting your ideas, realize it is your responsibility to sell – not their responsibility to buy. Develop your ability to present and sell your ideas.
  • Focus on contributing to the larger good – not just achieving your objectives.
  • Strive to win the ‘big battles’ – don’t waste energy and psychological capital on trivial points.
  • Present a realistic ‘cost-benefit’ analysis of your ideas – don’t just sell the benefits.
  • Challenge up on issues involving ethics or integrity (and see the Executive Presence tip at the end as a supporting practice).
  • Treat upper managers with the same courtesy that you would treat partners or customers.
  • Support the final decision of the team/manager.
  •  Make a positive difference – don’t just try to win or ‘be right.’
  • Focus on the future and let go of the past. Avoid ‘whining’ about the past.

“How to Foster Psychological Safety in Virtual Meetings”

Amy Edmondson and Gene Daley, Harvard Business Review, August 25, 2020 

Comment: Has the shift to virtual work during COVID had an effect on my team’s feeling of psychological safety (defined by Edmondson as people feeling they can raise questions, concerns, and ideas without fear of personal repercussion)?  The authors of this article say there is good reason to worry due to the difficulty we have in detecting social cues virtually, the distractions of home (doorbells, children, pets), and the environment itself.  The good news is that these experts offer some ways to offset these losses.  You will note that this month’s book review is also by Amy Edmondson, one of the authors of this article.  Both the article and the book are worth reading!

Key points for enhancing psychology safety in online meeting platforms (mostly in the authors’ words):

  • Hand-raise – sometimes we move too quickly to enable folks to electronically raise their hands, potentially missing some valuable feedback.  When it’s vital to have a full set of responses, “Yes-No” and anonymous poll features may work better.
  • Yes/No – the green check mark and red “X” can be effective but not all questions lend themselves to a binary choice.  Polls and chats provide worthy alternatives.
  • Polls – these work best when leaders frame diverse views as a resource before asking “What are people seeing that leads to this spread?”
  • Chats – these can elicit more participation but can also distract from the conversation; the chat function might be turned off when attention is most needed.
  • Breakout rooms – when kept small (3-5 people) is a good option that is usually a psychologically safe place to test ideas and build relationships, and it makes it easier to report ideas back in the main room.
  • Video – helps with our ability to read social cues but can also overload bandwidth; consider suggesting view options when necessary.
  • Audio-only – may be necessary at times but is not ideal for building psychological safety.
  • Ideas for trying before and after the meeting? (read the article!)

Book Review

“The Fearless Organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth.” 
Amy Edmondson, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2019.

Comment:  I first learned of Amy Edmondson’s work through the articles on Google’s Aristotle Project (written up in “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” by Charles Duhigg in the New York Times magazine – a powerful ‘bonus’ article for you to check out! (here)).  The Aristotle Project was an attempt by Google to build the ‘perfect team.’ In typical Google fashion, the project researched a half-century of studies about what made teams successful in general, and then tracked over 100 groups within Google for a year to discern what made Google teams successful.  What they found was explained by Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety: teams that were most high performing at Google had a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.  Amy Edmondson is THE expert on this – read this book.

Key ideas from “The Fearless Organization” (mostly in Edmondson’s words) include:

  • How she (Edmondson) stumbled into psychological safety by accident early in her academic career;
  • A review of research studies that provide evidence that no twenty-first century organization can afford to have a culture of fear;
  • Case studies of workplaces in both the public and private sectors show how psychological safety (and its absence) shapes business results and human safety performance;
  • Avoidable failure – and how workplace fear can create an illusion of business success, postponing inevitable discoveries of underlying problems that have gone unreported and unaddressed for a period of time;
  • Dangerous silence – the consequences of environments where employees are reluctant to speak up;
  • Examples of fearless organizations, who have – in different ways – created environments that ensure employee and client safety and dignity;
  • What leaders must do to create fearless organizations where everyone can bring his or her full self to work to contribute, grow, thrive and team up to produce remarkable results.

Executive Presence Tip of the Month

[In addition to subject matter expertise, organizational acumen, and higher-level thinking skills, effective executive leadership requires the sometimes-hard-to-define practices and skills that are embodied in ‘executive presence.’   Executive presence is an elusive concept, but we know it when we see it….and one can grow her executive presence.]

Make your voice heard…appropriately.

This suggestion is about both the volume of your voice as well as the frequency, timing, and purpose of using that voice.  Some speak so softly as if not wanting to be heard – you are NOT E.F. Hutton – be responsible for being heard without yelling. (If you don’t remember that commercial, stockbroker E.F. Hutton wanted you to believe that what its agents had to say was so important that an entire room of people would immediately go silent when they spoke – good luck with having that effect on your audience!)  If you have to, learn from a voice coach how to project your voice. “Appropriately” also means to speak less if you are the type who tends to dominate the conversation.  If you are the type that doesn’t speak up as much, make sure your voice is heard when what you have to say really needs to be heard – and especially in those situations when the message needs to be heard but may not be welcomed.  Make your voice heard appropriately this week.

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