This blog is the second in a series of blogs about psychological safety and trust.

Psychological safety, defined as a shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk taking, has been identified as the by far most important characteristic of successful high-performing teams. A team needs to feel safe for expressing ideas, asking questions and admitting mistakes. How can you increase the level of psychological safety in your organization? Here are 3 advices, coming from recent literature.

1. Leaders are imperfect: Model vulnerability

Much depends on the behavior of the leaders of the teams. If they are not inclusive, ready to admit mistakes themselves, a wrong example is given to the rest of the team. One way to foster psychological safety is to acknowledge your own imperfection. It all starts with modeling vulnerability, sharing your personal perspective on work and failures with your employees and encouraging them to do the same. Employees have to experience that their leader is just as human and mortal as themselves.

Moreover, try to invite employees to challenge your own perspective, encourage them to take risks and demonstrate risk-taking in your own work. Give credit to teammates by supporting and representing the team, by expressing gratitude for their contributions and by sharing their work with other parties in the company

2. From passive to active: Demonstrate engagement

We may think it’s sufficient to listen and talk to colleagues or employees, but the way we do it is even more crucial. Only by shifting our perspective from that of the knower to that of the learner, we can build an understanding of another’s perspective. Model curiosity by asking lots of questions with the intention of learning from teammates. Always find mutual alignment by recapturing what has been said and acknowledge areas of agreement and discussion. 

Model curiosity. Only by shifting our perspective from that of the knower to that of the learner, we can build an understanding of another’s perspective.

Furthermore, it may seem obvious but we often forget to be aware of our body language during conversations. This can be as simple as making eye contact, nodding your head to show understanding, leaning towards the person speaking and trying to avoid being on your phone or laptop during meetings. Even your facial expressions matter: Are they unintentionally negative?

3. Dare to speak up: Encourage a healthy culture of ‘debate’

Lastly, it’s beneficial to encourage a healthy culture of ‘debate’ within teams. Teams need opposing opinions to consider other angles of a problem and to think more deeply about their own views. However, crucial is how opinions are presented and perceived by the other team members, in a way that is not personal or emotional. Once an argument is seen as confrontational, teams perform worse. People can’t fully process information when a conflict becomes emotional, so they become irrational and distracted.

The goal is to focus on the facts and ideas instead of the person bringing them. A possible method for doing this is formally appointing roles within the team, such as ‘the devil’s advocate’, which empowers team members to disagree and debate within the safety of playing a role. An opinion or argument needs to be decoupled from the personality of the person voicing it.

Progress comes from new ideas and perceptions, which can only be achieved in a culture that does not suppress, ridicule or silence. That’s what psychological safety is all about.

Otolith helps improving organizations by developing leadership, guiding change and creating people practices.