Want a creative team? Optimize for psychological safety.

Most of my time working for an early stage investment company and running accelerator programs, our team believed that every ideal startup team essentially needs these 3 people — the CEO, the tech, and the ops person. Others add on a marketing and finance guru to the mix.

Whatever your ideas about this, the underlying assumption is the same. When you have the perfect mix of skills, you're more likely to find success as a business.

Pretty simple, right? Not quite.

Don't get me wrong, I do believe there are core roles to be filled within any organization — big or small. But as someone who's been involved with several startups over the years, I've seen teams composed of brilliant individuals completely fail.

And this always puzzled me. It felt like we had all the right "ingredients" going for these teams, and yet the people just couldn't work together. I came to the conclusion that effective teams are a lot more than lumping people with the right skills together.

I realized how we were working together was just as important as what we were working on. It's about our dynamic, culture, interactions, unspoken rules, assumptions, and above all trust and respect. We are all unique(opens in a new tab or window).

As I delved deeper into the science of what makes a great team, I discovered there are many team interaction factors that come into play when determining the success of a group. But there was one recurring theme that stood out to me about effective teams — psychological safety.

What is psychological safety in the workplace?

One of the most popular research in this area was conducted by Google(opens in a new tab or window). They wanted to find out what makes a dream team. And funnily enough, the top characteristic of such teams wasn't having a certain number of star engineers from Ivy League institutions. It was whether the team members felt psychologically safe.

Here's how they described workplace settings with high psychological safety: "Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of one another".

So what does this look like exactly? Here are some examples:

  • Suggesting ideas or questioning without fear of negative consequences — like being immediately dismissed or humiliated.
  • Feeling comfortable asking for help from leaders and peers.
  • Being able to admit to mistakes without fear of being reprimanded.
  • Conflict is handled healthily. Where people can disagree constructively without it turning into one-sided discussions or personal attacks.
  • Knowing your skills and contributions are valued by others.

If you've ever worked in a team, you'll understand how difficult it is to develop this kind of dynamic in a group(opens in a new tab or window). We've all hesitated to speak up in a meeting for fear of being perceived as confrontational or naive. And this is all because of self-preservation. We don't want to feel lousy, or worse — lose our jobs.

A study(opens in a new tab or window) conducted by market research company, Ipsos, has also reinforced this conclusion. They found that only 47% of employees across 24 different countries feel psychologically safe at their workplace.

This statistic just demonstrates how difficult it can be to get employees to remove existing psychological defenses. So don't expect things to change overnight.

But with consistent and conscious effort, the rewards you get from creating a psychologically safe culture is definitely worth it.

How does psychological safety improve team performance?

The benefits of psychological safety aren’t just about positive feelings between everyone in the team. There are many tangible effects that can impact the long-term outcome of your business. Here are some of them:

  • It promotes creativity which is essential for innovation and problem-solving. This study(opens in a new tab or window) by researchers at Jinan University found that psychological safety is positively related to creativity when there is enough knowledge sharing between members.
  • It increases team productivity.Researchers(opens in a new tab or window) from Gallup compared different teams — some had more people who felt their opinions matter while some had less. They found that groups with more people who felt their opinions mattered were 12% more productive.
  • Staff retention gets better. The Google study found that members of teams with more psychological safety were less likely to leave the company. An essential benefit for companies with high turnover rates.
  • It promotesteam learning(opens in a new tab or window). In an environment that runs on fear, people may be more caught up with hurt feelings because of a negative reaction from others. And can't focus on the actual mistake made and what can be learned from it. Conversely, in a psychologically safe environment, mistakes are highlighted for what they are — a mistake that can be learned from and corrected. Group members aren't don't take it personally and can focus on improving themselves to prevent future mistakes.

How can I tell if my group members feel psychologically safe?

Surveys are always a good place to start if you want to get an understanding of how your team members are feeling about the group dynamics.

It can be as simple as using this free assessment tool(opens in a new tab or window) developed by Amy Edmondson, a prominent thought-leader in this field and Harvard Business School professor. Don't forget to assure your team members that they can be honest and that the data will be anonymized — an exercise in psychological safety itself.

But remember, surveys and scales are just tools. It's not an exam where you've passed as long as you hit the 50% mark. They're meant to help you understand what's going on at a group level in a way that may not automatically be expressed to you on a daily basis. If you've scored 70%, ask yourself why it isn't 80%.

Such methods are especially useful if there is an existing culture of fear and entrenched hierarchy. If you suddenly started asking members for their honest opinions, it may be met with skepticism. So sending out an anonymous survey may give employees an added layer of safety to express themselves.

But if you have a team with milder psychological safety problems, you may not even have to use such formal methods. I always believe that just talking to your team members in an open and honest way will give you the best insights.

It can be as simple as saying to your group, "I want to know how to make things better for you guys. Give me your honest feedback. Don't worry, there won't be any repercussions." You'll see the defenses come down, and your members will be more likely to open up about specific ways things can be improved.

How leaders can create psychological safety in the workplace

I initially found it strange to think that team environments can be created because I assumed it was something we either had or didn’t. But after some trial and error, I realized that it can be shaped and influenced. And it always begins with the leader.

It all starts with humble leadership

While all members of the group contribute to the culture of the team, leaders always have more weight(opens in a new tab or window). If someone is observing an interaction between a leader and a teammate, he or she is going to take more cues from the leader. This means you absolutely set the tone for how your team is going to work together.

And in order for you to initiate the change of increasing psychological safety, you first need to examine your mindset.

When I first started managing a team, I fell into the trap of thinking that I always needed to have the answers. Because I assumed my members wanted that from me and they appreciated someone who gave them direction and projected confidence at all times. (I suppose I was putting up some defenses too).

But on the flip side, I saw that this wasn't creating an environment where we could be open to curiosity and making mistakes. Things weren't as psychologically safe as they could be due to my interpersonal communication skills(opens in a new tab or window).

And as I was searching for an answer to remedy this, I stumbled on the concept of humble leadership. As these researchers describe in their study(opens in a new tab or window), the humble leader is someone who willingly admits to errors, is receptive to being taught, and values the contributions of others.

I've personally felt that when I had this change in my own thinking, a culture of psychological safety naturally followed suit. And this isn't just my own experience. This study has actually established a connection between humble leadership, psychological safety, and team creativity. So remember, it begins with you.

Demonstrate your own vulnerability

When you have the mindset of a humble leader, you need to take the initiative in creating a psychologically safe environment — a place where members can feel secure enough to make mistakes, speak up, and take risks. And this involves taking the risk to demonstrate your own vulnerabilities.

This can be as simple as admitting to your own errors or asking members to point out areas for you to improve. At a group level, you can even try purposefully brainstorming bad ideas in a meeting — just to show that it's more important to get the creative juices flowing rather than giving the "right" ideas.

When they see the person with the most influence in the group bringing down the defenses, the rest are more likely to follow.

Show you value opposing ideas, questions, and admitting to mistakes

The next crucial part of creating psychological safety is monitoring how you react to situations when members are put in a position of vulnerability. This includes:

1. Create a safe space by setting the scene at the start of the meeting to open with the statement “this safe space to share and be open” and for everyone to be open to learning something new that might feel different and sometimes uncomfortable and that is ok.

2. Listening openly about differing views and questions. Not just using your ears, but your body language as well.

3. Praising members when doubts about other ideas are raised or when they admit to mistakes that have been made.

4. Providing your own honest views if you disagree. And doing it in a way that demonstrates curiosity rather than opposition.

5. Encouraging healthy disagreements that are focused on finding the best solution to issues.

6. Responding to admissions to mistakes with a future-oriented perspective. Thank the person for highlighting the problem and figure out a way to prevent it from happening again.

7.Regularly thank your team members for their contributions so they know what they're doing is valued by you.

I found that when I made these small changes, big differences happened to the culture and performances of my teams. Introverted members started speaking up more in meetings, and added so much value to discussions. Others shared that they felt more appreciated in the organization.

And surprisingly, I too felt like the pressure was off me to give the right answers all the time.

Start thinking about how you can make a difference in your team's perception of psychological safety. It doesn't just help with performance and productivity. As a leader, you could actually be touching the lives of others by helping them to feel valued and safe in the workplace.

This article is written by Annie Luu.

Annie Luu is the global innovation director at online coaching startup, Fingerprint For Success.(opens in a new tab or window)

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