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4 proven strategies to create psychological safety in your workplace

In their December 2020 survey of more than 1000 HR decision makers, HR Zone found that more than 50% said that ensuring the psychological safety of their employees was now their number one priority. Psychological safety is the idea whereby everyone in your team feels able to contribute, to take risks in the knowledge that they won’t be punished or ridiculed for doing so. This ability to feel vulnerable at work is proven to improve results, boost collaboration and improve innovation as well as employee morale and engagement. In this article, we will discuss 4 proven strategies to create psychological safety in your workplace.

1 - Build a culture of trust

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson describes psychological safety as “a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” If you are committed to creating psychological safety in your team, you must proactively work to earn and extend trust. You need to build trust, keep trust, and be an example for your colleagues.

An effective way to build trust is to refrain from rushing to fix things but instead, allowing people to think through challenges themselves and come up with their own solutions. This might seem counterintuitive at first, but being intentionally silent instead of solving all the issues can be more effective in building trust because it allows others to feel valued. Great leaders refrain from rushing to fix things and instead they invite their team members to find solutions.

Another powerful strategy to build trust is to say when you do not know. Employees have been conditioned to feel that they will be punished if they do not know all the answers at work. However, nobody has all the answers all the time so this assumption does not make sense. You need to change the expectation that people should know everything in your team. Creating the tone that is OK to not know everything is a great way to change that false assumption. For example, you can celebrate when someone says they don’t know. Encourage your team to explore different perspectives for each scenario, showing them that more than one option is always possible and by doing so, you are demonstrating that it is OK not to know everything but rather it is better to be open to new ideas and perspectives. Think of how to ask questions that allow people to say they don’t know.

2 - Promote healthy conflict

Conflict at work is probably considered one of the riskiest situations and most people actively avoid conflict at all cost. However, having conflicts is a natural process and healthy teams that are psychologically safe focus on creating healthy conflicts, rather than avoiding or suppressing conflicts altogether, which is very damaging to the team. Asking questions in a certain way allows others to feel that you respect them and are debating their ideas rather than judging them because of their ideas. When you ask questions with the intention to discuss the idea rather than the person, the other person will not hesitate to share all their ideas with you, knowing they will not be judged themselves.

A great way to promote healthy conflict is to approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary. A perceived loss triggers defensiveness and disengagement. Instead, focus on creating a win-win situation during a conflict by asking: “how could we make this work for both of us?”

In addition, you can promote healthy conflict by replacing blame with curiosity. When a conflict arises, remind yourself that you do not know the actual reason. Approach the people with curiosity instead of blame. Blame imakes no-one feel good and only creates a culture of defensiveness. Instead, focus on creating psychological safety where everyone feels safe to speak up. Find out why something didn’t work rather than pointing fingers. Recognize opportunities for learning and celebrating e what you have found out. State the problematic behaviour as an observation, and use factual, neutral language. Engage people in an exploration and ask for solutions.

3 - Allow mistakes

To create psychological safety in your workplace, it is fundamental to build a culture where mistakes are allowed. It is key to explain to your team that not only are mistakes okay, but they are essential and they lead to greater growth. To do so, tell your team when you make mistakes. Tell your colleagues that we all make mistakes because we are all human.

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

What both the Harvard Business School Professor and Google found in their separate research is that teams which made more mistakes were actually more successful than others. That is because creating an environment in which people feel comfortable to take risks is key to fostering innovation in the workplace. In a hybrid work setting, it can be more challenging to create a culture that allows mistakes; to find out more about how to create an inclusive culture in hybrid work, watch my video Building inclusion in hybrid work (how to do it well in 3 simple steps).

4 - Measure feedback

The last pillar to create psychological safety in your team is to measure psychological safety. Paul Santagata, head of industry at Google, created a process to build psychological safety where measuring feedback is a key element. He regularly asks his team members how safe they feel and what could enhance their feeling of safety. In addition, his team also regularly takes surveys on psychological safety, like this quiz titled “Is your team psychologically safe?” . Some questions include: “How confident are you that you won’t receive retaliation or criticism if you admit an error or make a mistake?” .

Asking for feedback on how you deliver your message also disarms your opponents and increases trust in leaders. Santagata closes difficult conversations with these questions:

  • What worked and what didn’t work in my delivery?

  • How did it feel to hear this message?

  • How could I have presented it more effectively?

Asking for feedback also needs to be done well. Take the time to teach your team good feedback techniques. Use phrases like:

  • What went well?

  • Could I have done better?

  • What should we or I do better next time?

Giving and receiving feedback well are skills that should be learnt and practiced in order to create psychological safety.

As a team leader, manager, HR professional or even as an individual contributor, the tone you set at work has the power to make or break your team’s success and engagement. When you employ these four proven strategies to create psychological safety, you will empower your team members to share their ideas, learnings and concerns, which will spark your team’s performance. For more information on how I can help you to create psychological safety in your workplace, contact me now.

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