What is psychological safety and why is it the key to great teamwork?

In 2015 following the success of Project Oxygen, Google published the results of a two year study into what makes a great team. The interesting thing was that the answer wasn’t: those with the most senior people, with the highest IQs or even those that made the least amount of mistakes.

Based on the findings of “Project Aristotle”, Google developed a list of the 5 key dynamics that make great teams successful: psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact.

While all five were necessary to create a successful team, psychological safety stood out as the most important factor.

According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who coined the term:

Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.
Amy c edmonson harvard business school
Amy Edmondson
Harvard Business School Professor

What Amy Edmonson and Google both found in their separate studies, is that teams which made more mistakes were actually more successful than others. Why? Because creating an environment in which people feel comfortable to take risks is key to fostering innovation in the workplace.

Have you ever been in a meeting where no one voiced their opinions, there was not much discussion, and people simply went along with what their manager said? A solid team should be able to bounce ideas off each other, strengthen action plans, help solve issues and provide support to each other.

For inspiration see professor Amy Edmondson’s TEDTalk on "Building a psychologically safe workplace."

Get get you started, we’ve put together 5 tips for fostering psychological safety in your workplace:

1. Lead by example

2. Encourage active listening

This is an important part of ensuring people feel valued and that they can contribute to the team. Ideas to improve listening include:

3. Create a safe environment

One of the keys of psychological safety is that people feel comfortable voicing their opinions and do not fear being judged. Help teams develop a safe environment, by creating a few ground rules on how they interact with one another. These could be for example:

4. Develop an open mindset

In order to break free of judgment and strengthen the relationship between team members, it’s important to have an open mindset. Often we look at things from our own lens, but approaching them from a different angle can help bring perspective. In order to develop an open mindset at the workplace:

When it comes to company culture, people often talk about three key ingredients to ensure it’s healthy: strong mission and vision that help drive clarity for people in their roles; individual values align with company values; and the prospect of professional growth. However psychological safety is also key to ensuring you have a healthy company culture where people feel able to contribute their ideas and be themselves, as demonstrated by Google’s study.

Do you want to help your managers strengthen their teams? Download our Manager's Guide to Using Feedback to Motivate, Engage and Develop Teams below.

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