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Psychological Safety

How do you build it?

The Context

During a recent open invite session, I asked people to share experiences when they did not feel psychologically safe via the chat function. It is a sensitive question and I had a diverse group of people from different functions and geographies. Yet there was an overwhelming amount of responses flowing in – people openly shared situations where they felt alienated, bullied, threatened, or marginalized in the workplace, and the detrimental impact it had on their confidence, well-being, and essential feeling of safety.

Establishing a psychologically safe environment is crucial in a world that is becoming increasingly volatile, uncertain, and stressful. It allows people to focus on their work and thrive in their jobs rather than waste time, emotions, and resources worrying about protecting their image when an issue arises. In today’s highly uncertain business context, experiencing psychological safety is essential for people’s mental health and well-being.

Psychological safety has become a mainstream topic, and you will hardly find an organization that does not strive to build a psychologically safe environment. But while there is a lot of talk on why psychological safety is important, how do you build a psychologically safe environment?

Common Misconceptions about Psychological Safety

Some implicitly assume that it is about a general feeling of comfort in the workplace. According to Amy Edmondson who did the original research, psychological safety is not about staying in the comfort zone, however – on the contrary, it is about building an environment where people are willing to take interpersonal risks, speak up, disclose mistakes, and share their fears and emotions openly. It is about creating an environment of trust where people will honestly engage with each other.

Another common misconception is that psychological safety is having a culture of harmony. While harmony sounds like an ideal circumstance, it often leads to people sacrificing honesty for the sake of agreeing with others. Having people tip-toe around each other to keep the peace or maintain a family dynamic is doing more harm than one might imagine. Psychological safety should not be confused with toxic positivity. A sign of a healthy workplace is people openly discussing issues, problems, and mistakes with each other and working together to help avoid future mistakes.

A third common misconception is that psychological safety can be established at an organizational level. However, psychological safety is a team-based construct – it can only be built among people who have regular interactions with each other. Yes, when multiple teams have reached high psychological safety, there is a positive ripple effect in the entire organization. But there is no shortcut to getting there – psychological safety is not built in town halls or big meetings. It is built one team at a time.

3 Steps to build Psychological Safety

Recognizing the Starting Point
When building psychological safety, it is important to recognize that most people don’t come with a “clean slate”.

All of us bring our history of past experiences, many have experienced psychologically unsafe environments. Building psychological safety therefore often is a journey of unpacking previous traumas from unsafe environments and working on developing healthy team habits that over time increase trust, well-being and honesty in the team. This journey can be sequenced into 3 steps.

Getting to know each other deeply

The first step in this process is for people to open up and get to know each other on a deeper level. The challenge is that this requires people to show vulnerability. Especially people who have worked in psychologically unsafe environments have lasting implications from their traumatic experiences resulting in hesitations or difficulties to open up. Individuals in a psychologically unsafe working environment often believe that they are the only person who feels unsafe, at risk, or unable to discuss emotions or thoughts freely. It is imperative in these scenarios to create a safe space for people first so that they muster the courage to share who they are, how they feel, and what is important to them.

Creating an atmosphere where people express empathy and compassion towards each other is a prerequisite to getting there. This entails creating inclusive conversations so that team members will let their guard down and let others in. Taking time for personal sharing, and encouraging people to listen with curiosity without judgement is key.

Powerful interventions that help during this step of the journey are fun activities such as “speed dating” to break the ice, then asking people to share their past experiences, their hopes and fears, and their life stories. Those who facilitate the interaction must hold the space so that everyone is listened to, no one is judged, and everyone can express themselves fully.

Practicing honest conversations and giving feedback

Conversations ranging from discussing project difficulties, owning up to a mistake made, and retrospectives to evaluate success and failure in past work are all helpful in this regard. Powerful interventions also entail people giving feedback to each other “one on one”  on how they can leverage their strengths more, but also what might be getting in their way and how they might be inadvertently hurting the team.

Having honest conversations and giving feedback is like a muscle that needs to be trained. If it is done regularly in a safe environment, people will over time unlearn their initial hesitations and feel more confident with openly giving feedback to each other. At atrain, we have established a ritual that we practice among our Executive consultant community to share feedback and expectations regularly. Every 6 months, we all do a 360, which is debriefed for each one of us by a colleague. Then all of us meet face to face for a full day. We reflect on what worked and what didn’t work on an organizational level and we all share our reflections on our impact, our challenges and our growth over the past months.
Then everyone gives feedback to everyone about how we see each others’ contributions, behaviour, and growth. In the afternoon, we discuss what lies ahead and what challenges we need to overcome jointly as an organisation.

Based on this sensemaking, we exchange candid feedback and expectations with each other on the role that we feel each of us needs to play in tackling those challenges. We are all very much benefitting from this day, as we all leave with clarity and confidence about where we need to focus, individually and collectively.

Addressing the most challenging topics honestly

The third step for teams that have already reached a high level of psychological safety is to tackle the most challenging topics honestly and courageously.

Any leadership team is tasked with difficult, ugly topics – we often call them the elephants in the room. The thing about those elephant topics is that it is a natural human tendency to dance around these issues and avoid them or discuss them only superficially. However, unless the team gets to the bottom of the issue, it is unlikely that it will be resolved fundamentally.

When working with teams on such topics, we often utilize the ancient wisdom of Buddhist Philosophy to help the team muster the courage to tackle the issue honestly and courageously. Buddhist philosophy differentiates between pain and suffering. In life, pain is inevitable –nothing is permanent, and this implies that nothing in life can be held on to. Loss and decay are part of life and they create painful experiences for us. However, suffering is optional. Suffering results from hanging on to things that cannot be preserved, or avoiding facing difficult truths. Cutting through suffering implies a commitment to truthtelling – making an effort to see both the outside reality and ourselves just as we are, without delusion.

One leadership team I was working with was faced with a difficult productivity challenge. Costs had been growing faster than revenues for quite some time, and everyone was constantly asking for more resources. A culture had been creeping in where people felt entitled to expand resources continuously. The team had to face up with the difficult truth that as a team, they had been too harmony-driven – they wanted to make people happy and were giving them what they were asking for rather than what was justified. They had to start telling people the truth and challenging people to grow their top-line revenue before asking for more resources. When the team owned up to their reality and faced the truth, it was liberating.

Getting to a point of truth enabled the team to act with wisdom and courage, and challenge others to face reality.

The Prize

Building psychological safety is a journey that any team needs to undergo.

In a world where uncertainty, volatility and outside pressure are at an all-time high, we must focus on building psychologically safe environments where people can be themselves, express themselves freely, and engage with each other with honesty and compassion.

Leaders who understand this imperative will do more than just make their teams successful – they will build an environment that is highly conducive to people’s well-being, psychological health, and growth.

There are no shortcuts and there is no magic wand – psychological safety must be built one step at a time. But it is well worth the investment. People who have experienced a truly psychologically safe team will cherish that experience forever, and will want to recreate it in any team they are a part of.

About the author
JOACHIM is a psychologist and the CEO of atrain GmbH.
After finishing his university studies, he followed his strong aspiration to create a better environment for people and founded atrain in 2002.
According to the motto: “Organizations don’t change – people do!”, since the beginning, the focus has been on creating an environment where people can and want to develop their and the organisation’s potential to the top.
Beyond the business world, Joachim aspires to catalyze positive change in society.
As a thought leader, he helps to inspire new thinking and invests in pro bono work in the education system, to help the next generation to thrive and shape human-centric future together.

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