How to Create Psychological Safety as a Team Leader

Psychological safety is the ability to exhibit and apply one’s own self-worth, dignity, and individuality without fear of possible negative consequences of negatively affecting self-image, career, or status. It is described as a shared internal belief that the group is psychologically secure, permitting constructive participation. 

In socially competent and psychologically safe groups, individual members regard each other as having reliability and trust. In a psychologically insecure working environment, individual team members may view each other with distrust and lack of respect.

What should a Team Leader do?

Team leaders can make the right decisions and take the right actions, but they cannot do it if their opinions or judgments are clouded by fear, uncertainty, or hesitation. 

Leaders can learn to ask questions and make sure their subordinates are clear on what is expected of them. Team members need to feel that they have this important access to information, in order to contribute constructively.

Team leaders need to teach their people how to identify and accept mistakes. Asking questions can go a long way toward making teams more transparent and accountable. 

Leaders who do not ask questions are likely to make assumptions or even take actions that will exacerbate a problem. Team leaders who are careful to ask questions are more likely to have an open dialogue rather than a heated debate that could lead to embarrassment or resentment.

Recognizing and accepting mistakes is also one of the key dynamics that can enhance psychological safety in teams. If you make a mistake, learn from it and move on rather than blaming somebody else. Doing so can foster a sense of teamwork and make your coworkers feel closer to you.

How to Evaluate Psychological Safety in Teams

There are several ways to evaluate psychological safety in teams. 

  1.  To pay attention to the behaviors of individual team members. Sometimes you can spot a pattern that reveals hidden psychological dangers.
  2. Use personality styles tests to discover the types of character traits that make employees happy to work for you and that make them fearful if they are part of a team.
  3. Use tests that measure psychological safety by testing the attitudes and behaviors of managers towards various scenarios that present teams with either potential risks or opportunities.

Team leaders should teach their people to be cautious about mistakes and the resulting stress. But in order for this to happen, the leader needs to model curiosity and fallibility. 

Don’t reflexively ask questions like “What was I thinking?” or “How did that happen?” If you are fallible or curious, other team members will follow suit. Your employees may view you as a fallible leader but they will respect and care about you because you do model curiosity and fallibility.

When the line of communication has become polluted with statements like “Your approach is too individualized” or “You do not value my input” or “I cannot trust you,” there is no room left for effective communication. 

The team member who has just been criticized has no opportunity to learn from his mistakes or understand why he is being criticized. The learning problem lies in the fact that no learning can occur without the shared understanding of what is required to learn and what is needed to avoid making mistakes. 

A collaborative team environment is designed to create the possibility of learning by having multiple people take responsibility for the different aspects of the learning process. It is impossible to apply the Golden Rule to these circumstances because the only rule that applies is: reciprocity.

Another way that teams perform poorly is when they are too focused on performance. Research shows that teams that have set goals but no way to reach those goals are more likely to experience organizational chaos and conflict than teams that have clearly defined objectives. 

The most important role of a project manager is to make sure that the research projects are taking the right path and that teams have an opportunity to make adjustments along the way. This is especially important for strategic projects, such as those that help the company become a global player. 

No matter how well a team completes a project, if it is headed down the wrong path, it will be difficult to regroup and reconfigure in the future. If a team is not operating in an organized fashion, it is unlikely to have long-term success.