Psychological safety

Lifeguard buoysBack in 2012, Google ran a study called Project Aristotle to discover the underlying causes of differences in team performance. Across a wide range of factors that one would expect to be relevant such as personality, intelligence, gender, education there were no clear patterns. The number one differentiator was that high performing teams had established a sense of psychological safety for their members. Let’s examine what psychological safety is and how we can help to foster it in our teams.

At its core, psychological safety means that team members care about and respect each other. It doesn’t mean they have to like each other and socialize outside of work. But it does mean that they don’t fight amongst each other or try to sabotage each other. They put the good of the project and of team ahead of any petty differences that might get between them.



Ideas are very fragile, they need a fertile, nurturing environment in order to flourish. One person could have the start of a groundbreaking concept but not be able to bring it to fruition alone. Speaking that idea out loud and asking for help is a risk and it takes courage. In a team which values psychological safety, people are happy to share their ideas. No one is afraid of being ridiculed or embarrassed when they speak up. When people feel safe to share that’s when the magic happens.

Two of the key elements of a high performing team are the ability to react quickly to change and to continuously improve their internal processes. Both of these skills require a high level of communication between team members. So it follows that a lack of psychological safety leads to a breakdown in communication which finally leads to poor agility in the team.

Freedom to fail is a concept which on its face seems counterintuitive. Why would a team want to celebrate its failures? Because it signals that the team is trying new and innovative concepts, it’s taking risks in the way it works. Some of these risks are going to fail, but the net result will be that the successes completely outshine the failures.


The only real failure is the one you learn nothing from.


Building Trust

As a leader, the best way to build trust is to lead by example. Team members will be looking to you for clues for their own behavior. Their responses will be measured against your own, and if you project a sense of trust in them them will reciprocate that trust amongst themselves. You create the company culture by how you treat your team. Celebrate your own failures and explain what you learned in the process. Celebrate the teams achievements publicly, show them that their work is valued on a regular basis.

A healthy level of friction can also build trust between team members, that is to say that team members should feel free to voice their dissent. When the majority of the team has come to a conclusion, any team member should feel comfortable to speak out and challenge that conclusion in a constructive manner. By challenging the consensus we may uncover a better solution or at the very least gather more evidence to support our conclusion. Team members who know their opinions will truly be considered are more likely to present novel ideas.

Consistency is another key ingredient in building trust. When you make a commitment to the team ensure that you follow through on it. Changing course haphazardly can be damaging to trust and morale. If you show a consistent level of following through on promises then the team will show consistent results in their work. Flip-flop on decisions however and the team will notice this and then only do the minimum to show that they are following your decisions, because they don’t want to waste effort on something that’s only going to change.


Over-appreciated teams tend to over-deliver on results.


Losing Trust

The fastest way to destroy trust in a team is to single out and chastise an individual in front of the group. This causes embarrassment and humiliation and it guarantees that person will never do anything to stand out again. Things will inevitably go wrong, discuss the problem among the group and ensure the problem is never repeated. Never search for a scapegoat.

Lying can be just as damaging to the team trust level, either intentionally or by omission. This is the textbook definition of trust, taking what people say at face value. By demonstrating that your words and actions are not trustworthy you will destroy any sense of psychological safety you had built up in the team.


Conclusion (TL;DR)

Psychological safety is the key differentiator between low and high performance teams. It’s build on a foundation of trust between team members and leaders. Trust is built up slowly but can be destroyed in a single interaction.