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4 Ways Leaders Can Build 'Psychological Safety' in Their Work Teams

When employees feel comfortable sharing suggestions or challenging the status quo, they are more likely to innovate and adapt to change. This excerpt from the new book, Deliberate Calm, offers insights on fostering psychological safety in your workplace.

A group of business people talking at a meeting.

What allows some teams to surface and learn from their errors while others did not?

"Psychological safety" is a term popularized by Amy Edmondson, an American scholar of organizational learning, to describe a shared belief that a team is a safe place for interpersonal risk taking. Psychological safety is a precursor to adaptive, innovative team performance.

When we feel comfortable asking for help, sharing suggestions informally or challenging the status quo without fear of negative consequences, our teams are more likely to innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity and adapt well to change.

In 2012, Google embarked on an initiative with the code name Project Aristotle to study hundreds of teams and find out what led some to succeed more than others. They found that the number one predictor of team performance was psychological safety. The key word here is "safety." On teams lacking psychological safety, people feel at risk of being blamed or shamed for our mistakes and sense that it is risky to disagree or admit failures. This implicit feeling of being under threat leads us to shift into protection and revert to reactive behaviors.

In a psychologically safe environment, however, we know our identities and relationships are safe and secure if we make a mistake and open up about it. This feeling of safety allows us to shift into learning both individually and as a whole, even when under stress and pressure.

In this state of learning, we can develop a new relationship with failure. Of course, we do not want to make mistakes or fail, and we must be held accountable for finding solutions. But when we are trying to innovate in a dynamic, uncertain environment in which we need to learn and master entirely new skills, errors and missteps are inevitable. In fact, if we do not encounter hiccups in an adaptive environment, it often means that we haven't set our sights high enough. By learning from those failures in a psychologically safe environment, we can continuously adapt and improve in a dynamic environment.

What is 'Double-Loop' Learning?

Most of us got to where we are because we are good at one kind of learning: single-loop learning, which involves solving hard problems with known methods and approaches. We tend to shift into protection and react by relying on known methods that simply won't work in this new situation.

There is, however, a second form of learning, called double-loop learning or adaptive learning. For example, a thermostat set to 68 degrees that turns the heat on anytime the room drops below 68 is engaging in single-loop learning. A thermostat engaging in double-loop learning would explore the most economical way to heat the room, asking, "Why am I set to 68 degrees?"

With double-loop learning, we explore and discover new methods and solutions by modifying our goals and decision-making rules in light of our experience. The only way to create a new reality is to move into the unknown and change our orientation, and failure will almost certainly be a part of the journey. This means that we can only engage in double loop learning in a psychologically safe environment, where we make learning from experience (and therefore mistakes) part of the adaptive solution-finding process.

We integrate this learning when we are able to fail without facing disastrous consequences and keep going. If we fail and are punished or demeaned for it, we learn that we should avoid taking risks that might make us look bad or cause others to think less of us, so we play it safe and limit our potential to learn and grow.

The Role of Leaders

Leaders play an important role in fostering psychological safety within their teams. In fact, as leaders our emotions often have a multiplier effect on our teams and organizations. When a leader is impatient, fearful, commanding or frustrated, it can shut down certain kinds of conversations. If a team is facing an adaptive challenge, this can really kill the creativity and learning that we need to engage in to find new solutions. When a leader demonstrates deliberate calm and is hopeful, calm, open and curious, the group can face challenges more creatively.

When leaders provide a foundation of trust, support, and psychological safety, it allows them to challenge and push their teams to do more than they initially think they can. This form of challenging leadership grounded in their trust in the capabilities of the team strengthens team performance and can lead employees to express creativity, feel empowered to make changes, and seek to learn and improve, but only when a positive, supportive team climate with psychological safety is already in place.

How to Boost Employees' Psychological Safety

Leaders can foster psychological safety among their teams using these four steps:


What good looks like:

  • Acknowledge that mistakes happen.
  • Avoid showing anger when mistakes happen.
  • Help team members correct mistakes.

What great looks like:

  • Share your own mistakes vulnerably and often.
  • Remind team members frequently that our work is complex and that we should expect mistakes.
  • Reframe mistakes as steps in a longer journey, as valuable feedback and data we can work with, and as an opportunity to learn.


What good looks like:

  • Every time there's a big decision, explicitly ask, "Are we ready to move forward?" and make sure everyone says "yes."
  • Avoid using discrediting language when somebody shares (e.g., avoid saying things like "yes, but . . ." or "There is a lot of context that you don't know").

What great looks like:

  • Actively avoid the "sunflower" effect, where others align with the view of the leader.
  • Remind the team frequently of the power of having everyone share. Note that, in our complex world, leaders don't have all the answers and everyone has a unique and useful part of the answer. Ask people to share their thoughts as well as their feelings and underlying beliefs or assumptions.
  • Invite participation in neutral, nonthreatening ways (e.g., "What could be a viewpoint we are missing? Are there any blind spots we missed?") and pause long enough for people to speak up.
  • Set up formal team mechanisms to encourage sharing of ideas (e.g., have a standing "devil's advocate meeting" to pressure-test plans and ideas).
  • Fill silences with questions instead of comments.
  • Explain why certain points of view were not incorporated into a final decision; share context and the decision-making process with the team transparently.


What good looks like:

  • Proactively and frequently acknowledge the good job that team members are doing.
  • Say "thank you" when people speak up or go above and beyond the norm.

What great looks like:

  • Make recognition part of your team's language and norms.
  • Give special thanks to people who bring up uncomfortable, hard issues, recognizing contributions to the open group dynamic as much as problem solving.
  • Be specific about any action that you celebrate, and the impact it had on you.
  • Acknowledge the points that others make during a meeting (e.g., "To build on Cara's point …").


What good looks like:

  • Encourage peer recognition (e.g., set a team norm to write a two- minute thank-you note every day).
  • Remind team members that it is everyone's role to enhance the experience of others on the team.

What great looks like:

  • Develop norms encouraging team members to give their views.
  • Coach team members to support each other (e.g., ask them to ask deep questions to really understand what their team members are bringing to the discussion).
  • Provide feedback and coaching to individual team members on their contributions to psychological safety.

Excerpted and adapted with permission from Deliberate Calm: How to Learn and Lead in a Volatile World, by Jacqueline Brassey, Michiel Kruyt and Aaron DeSmet of McKinsey & Company (Harper Business, 2022)


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