Does Your Team Feel Psychologically Safe at Work?


Over the years I've found myself in multiple conversations with leaders who are craving teams that are more innovative, communicative, (respectfully) outspoken, dynamic and cohesive. They have grown frustrated with team meetings filled with automatic agreement (to their ideas) or, even worse, silence.


They dream of robust conversation, constructive feedback, new ideas and collaboration. Oh, and will someone please disagree with them, or suggest a better way, just once?


They ask if I can please coach members of their team to use their voices more? I can, in fact it's one of my specialties, but let’s put that to the side for a moment.


I don’t work with executive leaders only. I also work with members of their team. The very people these leaders speak of.


When someone I'm working with confides they do not speak up in meetings, and I ask them why, they tell me they are not comfortable putting forth their ideas, sharing concerns or fears, offering feedback, admitting they don’t understand something or confessing to a mistake. They fear saying the 'wrong thing'. They are scared of the perceived, or very real, consequence of failure.



Fear of failure prevents risk taking and without risk, there’s no innovation. One of the very things leaders, and the organisations they work for, are craving - particularly today.


Without mistakes learning is limited, and this may be detrimental to growth of the employee, the team and its leader.


A lot of the work I do involves helping clients remove blocks of fear so they can initiate and navigate courageous, authentic and honest conversations. But how did they obtain this fear in the first place? By working with leaders who have not learned how to create a psychologically safe environment for their team.


Everyone remembers their first job and their first boss. My first full time role was a newly created position within a family business. This business had experienced some growth, paperwork was piling up and the owner could see the lone Office Manager was struggling to keep up. He decided a second person in the office was required and hired moi. Unfortunately, the lone Office Manager did not agree, and without any leadership training or coaching he handled my appointment in a disappointing way. A way that was detrimental to my learning, development and ability to do my job. It didn't take long for me to learn my ideas were not valid, I was not to speak unless necessary, to second guess everything I did, cover up any mistakes I made, never stand up for myself and do my work as I'm told. In my mind, it was important to never show vulnerability - to never put myself in a position where I could be criticised, scolded or laughed at.


I 'learned' that being at work required applying a suit of armour, which I endured from one role to the next. It was heavy and uncomfortable, it affected how I showed up each day, how I navigated hallways, meetings and even social events, but it protected me well.


Clearly, although I was not aware of it at the time, I did not feel psychologically safe at work.


I wasn’t until, working with an amazing leader more than ten years later, I slowly learned to remove my armour. I was safe. Safe to make mistakes, to put forth ideas, speak my truth, debate points of view. I was safe to show vulnerability.


Now, let’s return to the leaders who are craving a more innovative, robust, dynamic, communicative team. The ones I spoke of earlier.


Does every member of their team feel psychologically safe at work?


What is psychological safety?


Professor Amy Edmonston from Harvard Business School, who coined the phrase, has identified it as;


“a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”


And it has been identified, from research done by Google in 2015, as the most significant dynamic that distinguishes highly successful teams from others.


How can you, as a leader, create a psychologically safe environment for your team?


Brene Brown, my queen of vulnerability who teaches us to ‘embrace the suck’ and choose courage over comfort, tells us these are the biggest killers of psychological safety:

  1. Judgement

  2. Giving unsolicited advice

  3. Interrupting

  4. Sharing outside the team meeting


She then gives us her top 4 tips to create physiological safety – and you can implement these today.

  1. Active listening

  2. Staying curious

  3. Being honest

  4. Keeping confidences