Culture Leadership

The importance of psychological safety

Could fear in a team be the real reason for their ‘poor performance’?

Leaders often find themselves getting frustrated when team members:

  • seem to need the manager to make all the decisions
  • wait for the manager to tell them what to do
  • only do exactly what the manager tells them to do
  • don’t appear to show any initiative
  • don’t appear to make suggestions or come up with ideas

Rather than the team members being ‘poor performers’, this may be an issue of psychological safety.

I was coaching a 360 degree feedback recipient recently who shared with me their difficulties about a particularly challenging boss. In short their boss displayed a range of behaviours that were seriously eroding the individual’s ability to perform and their overall level of motivation, engagement and wellbeing. Amongst other things the boss had a tendency to:

The importance of psychological safety

Speak quickly, dominating the group with his thoughts and thinking out loud

Use phrases such as “what do you think, think we should…” without really pausing to listen to alternative views

Make snap decisions on the spur of the moment

Convert those decisions into dictates, but without providing much specific clarity, often using phrases such as ‘you know what I mean…’

Criticise the work of team members even though it is what they directed needed to be done

Use demotivating language such as ‘I’m disappointed…’, or ‘Not the quality I would have expected….’. 

Then change his mind on how things should be done, cycling back to the top of this list

In this example the boss was actually creating fear in the team through his behaviour and his frustration was exacerbating the situation – he was becoming more dictatorial and more frustrated and the team were becoming more fearful of taking action for fear of outright criticism. And of course everyone was afraid to speak out and give the manager any feedback. 

Google’s own research ( supports that of many other psychologists finding that psychological safety is a key component of team effectiveness and it is the leader’s responsibility to create an environment of safety.  

Some of the key things that effective leaders do to create psychological safety are:

They set out with a genuine desire to find the best solution, not their solution

They invite all contributions from the team and give them space to think and put things forward

They ask the team to evaluate their own ideas, rather than doing it themselves

They don’t assume they know, or need to work out all the answers. Admitting they don’t know can actually be liberating for them personally and for the team

They encourage the team to identify what can be learnt from mistakes and how the approach can be modified going forwards

They use language such as ‘what if?’ rather than ‘I think’

They listen and paraphrase to test everyone’s understanding, giving each person and each idea enough airtime

They build on ideas using ‘Yes. And…’ statements rather than ‘Yes, but…

They recognise contributions with thanks and reassurances such as ‘good idea’, ‘I like it’

They identify the pros and cons for each idea and challenge the team to make tweaks to address the cons

Above all leaders must not seek to place blame when things go wrong