In today’s workplace, employees often are hired for their unique skills and experience. While this hyper-focused knowledge helps create a competitive edge, it also creates demand for teams where multiple individuals can bring together their specific skill sets to strategize and respond to more complex, organizational goals.[1] To do this successfully requires more than simply uniting appropriately credentialed members, however, it needs collaboration. 

Because collaboration does not always occur organically, leaders may need to intentionally create an environment where employees can come together in exceptional ways. For this to happen, all team members needs to feel their voices are heard and matter. In other words, they need psychological safety, that is, a climate where they are comfortable being and expressing themselves.[2] Team members need to know they can be wrong and at ease when having difficult conversations with colleagues and supervisors without causing insecurity.[3] While  organizational culture has its influence here, individual behavior is more of a key driver.[4]

Psychological safety exists only when there is  a willingness by all team members to be respectful of each others’ opinions and willing to engage in healthy debate. When it comes down to it, psychological safety means being vulnerable, and that scares people. It’s not only about being comfortable speaking up yourself, or admitting to your boss that the idea you convinced her to execute was a flop, it means sticking your neck out for a colleague who may be in the hot seat.[5] At the same time, it also means that you know that the feedback you receive, whether encouraging of your ideas or not, will be constructive and supportive.

Leaders can contribute to psychological safety by creating shared understanding, proactively seeking input, and responding appreciatively.[6] This is important because employees perceive the level of psychological safety to be higher when leaders have positive relationships with followers.[7] It is also important for leaders to measure employees’ views on psychological safety. This means team members, including managers, should asks for feedback, and  there should be metrics in place to periodically assess how team members feel[8] because damages to psychological safety must be repaired to ensure its continuity.[9]

Employees want this in their workplace! A Pew Research survey found that 89% of adults think it is “essential” for top executives to create a safe and respectful workplace, making it a top  three priority for businesses (along with honest and ethical leadership and providing fair pay and good benefits).[10] However, only 30% of U.S. workers strongly agree that their opinions at work count.[11] This is a huge – and costly gap because psychological safety impacts important organizational outcomes.

Psychological safety leads to greater engagement and comfort in experimenting and taking risks because employees don’t fear retribution, punishment, or embarrassment.[12] They are comfortable being collaborative and asking for or offering help. Psychological safety has a reciprocal effect in terms of engagement in that this type of environment encourages greater engagement, which itself adds to the psychological safety.[13] Google conducted a two-year study on team performance and found that psychological safety was, by far, the most important dynamic associated with high-performing teams. Individuals who were on teams with higher psychological safety brought in more revenue, were rated as effective by executives twice as often as other employees, embraced diverse ideas, and were less likely to leave the company.[14] High-performing teams also demonstrate higher engagement, increased motivation, better performance, and greater opportunities for learning and development.[15]

Although psychological safety is a characteristic of the whole team, it starts with the individual. As such, team members need to get in the right headspace to create a psychologically safe team. To increase psychological safety and be more accountable in a team, members should focus on collaboration and curiosity, rather than competition and blame.[16] Recognize that even when teams disagree, every member is a person with their own hopes, anxieties, and families who love them. Like you, they want peace and happiness in their lives.

You can be accountable for your contribution to creating a psychologically safe, collaborative team by  adapting a new perspective. Start by reframing your perception of failure as having only disastrous outcomes.[17] Anxiety is wasted if it turns out your boss loves the idea you agonized over bringing forward. Even if it’s rejected, you might get feedback  to help you refine it, but either way, it’s very unlikely you will lose your job if your boss doesn’t like your idea. Reframing failure as just one of the many, albeit less desirable, steps on the way to success can change your attitude and approach towards conquering it.

Creating a truly psychologically safe environment means that all team members, regardless of level or location, share and benefit from the values established by the organization. In a face to face environment, team members benefit beyond formal interactions because they also can interact more casually, over coffee or lunch. Remote workers are unable to engage in the same ways.  With more people working from home, by choice or need, it is increasingly important for organizations to actively and deliberately create opportunities for all team members to interact.[18]

There are many ways to engage employees across geographical barriers and learn about their views, but the best way, hand’s down, is to ask them. This could, and should, be done on several levels. When creating a new team, or adding a member, ask each team member’s views on their skillsets, what they believe to be their greatest asset to the team, where they might need support, and so on. Don’t be afraid to include more personal information for team-building. Ask how each person got their name or a surprising fact about themselves. Be sure to document or graph responses as a reference to foster collaboration across the whole team.

Beyond work-related projects, teams should also incorporate regular “events” to develop a collaborative and supportive environment.  Have coffee or happy hours (maybe at the same time, depending on where team members are located!) where conversations are focused on individuals instead of work. You can also maintain a private team site or YouTube channel where employees are encouraged to post content, such as their children’s first day of school pictures or #DreamVacation links. Building social bonds helps build positive and trusting relationships, which are critical to psychological safety and successful collaboration among teams.

[1] Jones, B.F. (2017). The science behind the growing importance of collaboration. Kellogg School of Management, KelloggInsight

[2] Herway, J. (2017). How to create a culture of psychological safety. Gallup Workplace.

[3] Lagace, M. (2018). Make your employees feel psychologically safe. Harvard Business School, Working Knowledge.

[4] Borysenko, Karlyn. (2018). How to create your own psychological safety at work. Forbes.

[5] Borysenko

[6] Lagace

[7] Frazier, M.L., Fainshmidt, S., Klinger, R.L., Pezeshkan, A., & Vracheva, V. (2017). Psychological safety: A meta-analytic review and extension. Personnel Psychology, 70, 113-165.

[8] Delizonna, L., (2017). High-performing teams need psychological safety. Here’s how to create it. Harvard Business Review.

[9] Frazier et al.

[10] Parker, K. (2018). Many Americans say women are better than men at creating safe, respectful workplaces. Pew Research Center.

[11] Herway

[12] Herway

[13] Frazier et al.

[14] Rozovsky, J. (2015). The five keys to a successful Google team. Google; re:Work

[15] Delizonna

[16] Borysenko

[17] Borysenko

[18] Menabney, D. (2019). Why you need even more trust with a remote team. Forbes.