How to build a culture of psychological safety

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Psychological safety is the foundation of high-performing teams.

Google research shows it can make or break a team. When people don’t feel safe, they are less inclined to take risks. Fear prevents employees from speaking up, providing honest feedback, or sharing their ideas.

Trust, curiosity, and confidence — on the other hand — broaden our mind. Research by Barbara Fredrickson shows that positive emotions encourage divergent thinking and creativity.


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I’ve written a lot about psychological safety, how to build a fearless culture, and how to develop a safe workplace. Today, I want to share actionable tips to encourage trust and participation.

Let’s make it safe to speak up. Trust is like water. We don’t see it, but it’s there. Your team should relax and float.

1. Increase Self-Awareness

Trust starts with yourself. If you want someone to trust you, you must trust them first.

Self-awareness not only helps us grow but also uncovers our blindspots. Feedback is vital to understand how we deal with trust.

Several leaders seed fear without realizing it. Others do it on purpose. VW’s leadership style back in 2015 was based on fear. The top executives believed that terrorizing subordinates was the way to a superior design.

In 2017, after US regulators uncovered the diesel engine hoax, CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned. He took full responsibility — but denied any wrongdoing.

Most executives believe they are self-aware, but very few are. Winterkorn fell victim of the self-awareness trap.

VW had an unsafe culture. Fear and intimidation kept employees from calling out the hoax. People stayed silent even after the cheating was revealed. Only 1 of the ten supervisory members — Bernd Osterloh — spoke up.

Self-aware leaders embrace vulnerability — they are not afraid of recognizing mistakes. That’s the first step to heal an unsafe culture.

As Osterloh said, “We need in the future a culture in which problems aren’t hidden but can be openly communicated to superiors.”

Self-awareness makes us both trusting and trustworthy.

2. Facilitate Participation

The cost of silence is deceiving. According to Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, companies waste millions of dollars. That’s the price they pay because their employees stay silent.

Organizations have a silence problem, but most don’t realize it. It’s hard to detect when employees are not being honest. Silence can encourage groupthink, default consensus, and people keeping ideas to themselves.

Design meetings to encourage full engagement.

Practice conversational turn-taking. Provide each team members their turn to speak up. Managers or loud people should always go last — they can influence or intimidate others.

Hold silent meetings. Square uses them so people can prepare before discussing a challenge. Participants are giving 30 minutes to review a document before the conversation starts.

Brainstorm in writing. Introverts and minorities get intimidated with loud, fast-paced ideation sessions. Let everyone write down their ideas on their own first before everybody shares theirs.

Practice Progressive Collaboration. Everyone starts working alone, then in pairs, then foursomes, and finally as a whole group. The 1–2–4-All is perfect for both brainstorm and feedback sessions.

3. Design Team Rituals

Rituals are an effective and straightforward way to drive meaningful change. They accelerate collaboration, creativity, and trust.

As IDEO’s Tim Brown said, “Rituals create a constant nudging so that, over time, a culture learns to do something naturally and intuitively.”

Team rituals have a special power to bring people together. They help correct or reinforce behaviors in a human, non-threatening way.

Promote vulnerability by sharing work in progress. Flipboard has a weekly ritual called Mock O’Clock. Every Friday, the team convenes around a huge table. Everyone gets a sneak peek into new features or tools and can provide feedback to their co-workers.

Call out bad behaviors with a ‘No Talk’ card. DoTank uses it to neutralize talkers during innovation workshops. To increase participation, facilitators must stop someone from stealing all the attention.

Invite people for a Lean Coffee. Stride has increased inclusion and participation with this open, no-agenda meeting format. Everyone shares topics they would like to discuss. Then the entire team votes what items will be covered.

Make it Personal. Stories create connections. They inspire people to open up and share. DIY employees get together over bagels and coffee to share what they like doing outside of work.

Encourage authenticity. Camino Information Services gets an Angry Bird desk plush toy for every new hire. Employees can choose the one that best fits their personality. Their Angry Bird expresses who they are.

These are just examples. Read how to design your own team rituals.

4. Establish Adult Rules & Norms

Most companies say they trust their employees, but then their rules show the opposite.

Control is the enemy of trust. If your corporate rules treat people like kids, don’t expect them to behave like adults.

That’s why dumb rules frustrate your best people, as I wrote here. Organizations punish 97% of employees because the other 3% are offenders.

If you want to create a safe culture, start by creating safe norms.

Assuming good faith is a fundamental principle on Wikipedia. The rule encourages the community to trust others — that comments and edits are made in good faith. The assumption is that most people try to help the project, not hurt it.

Rules should empower people, not hinder their potential. Instead of telling people what not to do, rules should encourage them to make the right choices.

Many companies have an unlimited vacation policy. Some remove the approval process from expense reports. Everything employees submit is reimbursed — no questions asked.

Trust is not built with words, but with acts.

The same happens with mistakes. Most companies tell people to take risks and break the rules. But, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the real consequences.

Having clear rules of engagement removes the fear of being punished. I always advise my clients to have a ‘mistake policy.’ Don’t just say it’s okay to err. Be explicit that nothing will happen.

5. Reward and Punish Behaviors

The organizational culture is defined by the behavior you reward and punish.

Trust cannot be built with a lofty Powerpoint or corporate purpose.

The actions of both managers and team members create Psychological Safety. Trust is fragile — hard to build, easy to destroy.

Managers define who gets promoted, works on the cooler project, or attends leadership training — their actions signal what gets rewarded.

Rewarding the wrong people destroys trust. Not doing anything when people are not abiding by the company values is equally damaging.

Team members play a critical role too. If you let someone ‘get away with murder’ or to gossip behind other’s back, you are making the culture less safe.

What you praise, call out, share, or ignore shapes the culture.

Everyone’s behavior contributes to building trust. What do you reward and punish?

Want to learn how to build Psychological Safety at your organization? Contact me or check out this workshop.

This article first appeared on Medium.