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6 Tips for Leaders to Create Psychological Safety in Teams (Part 1)

With a rapidly changing world, the need for high-performance teams to solve difficult problems is more important than ever before.  The good news is that humans are wired to want to work together on a goal that is bigger than what can be achieved individually.

Atlassian, an enterprise software company, found that 50% of their employees identified strongest with their team compared to 25% each for both individuals and the company itself.  Counterintuitively, the degree to which people trust their team is always more important than how much they actually trust individual colleagues or the company.

But the bad news is that few teams operate at a high performing level.  If you review all the teams within your organisation, you’ll often find that around 10%-40% are performing suboptimally. What you’ll see is a lot of friction that slows down performance.  Sales targets aren’t being met.  Deliverables are late or of poor quality.  Individual team members complain a lot, gossip and act self-interested.  Excuses and blame abound as to why performance targets are missed.

In a dysfunctional team, there is little trust between team members and the leader.  Outsiders experience the dysfunction as a lack of reliability.  To compensate for the team that never delivers on time or at the right standard, adaptation kicks in.  Other departments learn to work around their poor performing cousins.  Over time, poor team performance becomes accepted as being part of the company culture. Just like that broken coffee machine that has been sitting in the staff kitchen for months.

In the work I do to improve the trust capabilities of leaders and teams, I have found the best solutions to improve team performance can be found in neuroscience. This means focusing on the following three factors that empower people to thrive at work.


Psychological Safety + Meaning + Connection = TRUST


In this first article of a three-part series, we will specifically focus on psychological safety.  It’s so important because our brains are wired to prefer certainty and feeling safe.  In a workplace environment, this causes enormous issues when things change.  People often become uncertain when there is any sort of change whether that be a new team leader, a new goal or reporting structure.  The result is that people default to operating from their survival brain.  This isn’t a thinking brain, but one that acts subconsciously based on patterns, habits and biases.  The result is decisions are made based on fear and a limited perspective of what’s possible.

According to research by Google Teams, psychological safety is the number one quality of a high-performing team.  It reduces groupthink,  avoidance of constructive conflict, increases the team’s collective emotional intelligence and optimises flow (a peak human experience).

Developing an open, safe, trusting workplace creates one benefit that most organisations overlook.  It helps every team member manage their own psychology more effectively.

Unfortunately, as leaders, we often inadvertently send employees into the part of their brains that produces a suboptimal performance.  To reduce this tendency, team leaders need to know how to create a beneficial team structure.  

The good news is the right environment naturally rewards the optimal behaviours that encourage sharing of ideas and information, accountability and excitement about the future.  It reduces people’s tendency to exhibit defensive and negative behaviours when they’re uncertain.  It restricts self-absorption, self-sabotage and a lack of self-awareness that reduces team trust.  

HOW TO BUILD Psychological Safety in teams

Encouraging people to take risks and speak openly without feeling embarrassed occurs in a psychologically safe space.  While it can take time to build, it’s important to start setting the parameters straight away.

It starts with the team leader who models and champions the right high trust behaviours.  This involves setting clear parameters on how the group operates right from the start.  It also means being firm and not tolerating behaviour that deviates from a sacrosanct space.  Over time, team members follow the leader and also model the right behaviours.  They also do not tolerate those who do not perform at the same level creating a virtuous cycle which ensures sustainable, long-term performance.

Here are six steps for leaders to model to reduce perceived risk:

1. Set Clear Expectations of Who You Are and What You Need

How well a team performs boils down to how well everyone works together.  Different people have different strengths and weaknesses that often conflict with individual working styles.

According to the book, The Speed of Trust by Stephen M. R. Covey, in every interaction – explicitly or implicitly, understood or not, there are expectations. And the degree to which these expectations are met or violated affects trust. In order to achieve results, you need to make sure that everyone is clear on what needs to be achieved and the related expectations. Doing this at the outset stops a lot of potential problems.

People feel more comfortable with their leader when they know what they are doing and why.  At the start of a new project, new team addition or team formation, specify:

  • how the team can best work with you (what you like/dislike),
  • how you like to be communicated with (what you like/dislike),
  • how you plan to measure team performance, and
  • what you plan to do so that anyone can understand it. 

This ensures there are no surprises between what you want and expect which goes a long way towards increasing trust.  Then turn it around and get each team member to consider and discuss their preferences.  Getting everyone up to speed on how they all like to communicate and work will help build trust quickly.  It saves a lot of time when setting direction and following up.

Consider producing a team expectations document.  Outline what is expected of each team member in terms of their behaviours, expectations and attitudes, in relation to building trust with each other and the organisation as a whole (aligned to company values).  Make sure everyone works on it together and agrees on the document and signs it.

A major benefit is this process also ensures you start to not only connect with each team member but create a common language.  According to research by Sandy Pentland, high-performing teams tend to have short and frequent interactions. There’s a lot of assumed knowledge.   People speak in shorthand and are largely on the same page.  Having the right language and framework from the start speeds up this process.

2. Invite Team Members to Challenge you

Conflict is normal and even encouraged in high-performing teams.  In a low-performing team, people don’t voice their opinion.  If they do, it tends to be in a passive-aggressive manner that only reduces trust.  

To avoid this, a great leader encourages team members to not only challenge each other but the leader themselves.  Let everyone know that they are free to challenge ideas at all levels and that they are expected to come from a respectful solution-focused perspective.  A perspective that is based on helping the customer or the company (not the individual).

Start the process by being the example.  Encourage employees to challenge you or question how things are done.  Make sure you don’t bite, act defensive or non-committal.  Request ideas or information.  Actively seek out different perspectives and act on them quickly.  Make it clear that feedback must be based on good intentions.  It’s not an invitation to be rude under the false pretence of being “honest.” 

In the next team meeting, demonstrate how you acted on any previous request.  This will encourage team members to feel comfortable interacting with each other at this level, knowing that they have the support and trust of the leader.  

Monitor challenge exchanges in teams. Reward positive challenges and pull up negative challenges that are provocations.

3. Focus on Collective Results

Team members often won’t contribute or share information if they perceive that the environment is too risky.  

Trusted leaders work on sharing and managing risk in their team.  They let everyone know that the team wins together, not individuals.  They highlight long-term impact, rather than short-term business performance.  A leader’s ability to make the team accountable for success or failure, rather than individual success, increases trust and a sense of unity.

For example, instead of individual sales quotas, teams work together as a group to seize market opportunities.  This ensures people collaborate, innovate and co-operate to bring in new business together. Instead of becoming distracted by the need to protect themselves and their own self-promoting agenda.

Most importantly, it also involves everyone taking ownership and credit when things go well – and bad.  In a command and control hierarchy, typically the boss cops all of the flack while team members shirk responsibility.  Today, a sense of ownership must become more evenly distributed.

Start the process by discussing with your team how a joint commitment achieves the highest standards and the best results.  Ask team members how they intend to work together to help everyone align to achieving the group goal.  Share ownership by discussing what’s working and what’s not.  Use the same language to share credit for decisions that made a positive or negative impact.  Focusing the team on what they learnt from a decision that didn’t work out as planned, helps people feel safe.

4. Express your Team Core Purpose

Read any business book and you’ll learn the importance of a company purpose.  What is lesser known is that a team purpose is also transformative for the entire enterprise.  Having a team purpose that is tied into the organisational purpose aligns everyone to a bigger impact.

In today’s world of matrixed organisations, it’s difficult to have team members who can swear allegiance to one particular team.  Many team members belong to a variety of teams.  The result is that they can often be distracted by other deadlines.  Focusing each team member on the team purpose ensures they remain present to team requirements.

To encourage autonomy and freedom, create a team purpose that focuses on the impact for your desired audience.  This can be hard because it relies on trust.  It takes time to achieve outcomes. Unlike outputs which are easy to measure such as increase sales by 10% or ship code by this date.  

Ask your team: What is the big difference, big impact or big service we are going to collectively achieve for our customers?  How are we going to make our customers lives better?  Is it a new feature, better functionality or more empathetic customer care?  What are the distinguishing features our group has to create this impact? What are our talents and values that we can all bring to the team to make a meaningful difference?

5. Demand Accountability

Savvy leaders emphasise the importance of accountability and get everyone on the team to understand what and who they’re accountable to.  Creating a culture of accountability involves the leader making it clear that she trusts everyone and believes in them.

Accountability is two-way.  Not only does the team need to be accountable for performance, but leaders must also model accountability.  This requires the leader to step forward and demand accountability by not tolerating poor performance.

But it’s not always easy.  Did you know that one out of every two managers is terrible at accountability?

According to a Harvard Business Review research article, more than 5,400 upper-level managers around the world found that holding people accountable is the single biggest thing that managers avoid doing.

After all, 85% of mistakes get made because a manager is afraid of being a jerk.   Fear of being a dreaded micromanager also plays a part.  

It’s important to understand the difference between micromanagement and accountability.  Accountability requires people to step forward and provide input.  It demands employees fix their work when it’s subpar and be responsible for handing in work on time and at the right quality.  

On the other hand, micromanaging is when a leader becomes a pigeon boss.  Worried about entrusting people with accountability, they become nervous and swoop in to help.  They end up disrupting and taking over.  In other words, they’re like a pigeon that comes in and poops on everything.  Their intentions might be good, but their desire to help often tacitly allows people to not be responsible for lifting their game.  They don’t trust people to do work correctly.

To improve accountability call out performance issues as they arise (both privately and publicly).  Do you have a team member that likes to work alone and get credit for individual work?  Did an employee respond to a customer inappropriately?  Did someone interrupt too much in a meeting?  Did someone hand in a report that was only 90% complete?  Let people know about it immediately, rather than brushing it aside or stepping in to help.  

6. Lead with Trust

The final tip on how to create psychological safety is really ensuring that as the leader you do what it takes to decrease risk in your team.  Having clear structures on who is responsible, how decisions get made, accountabilities and understanding the purpose are important to get the team functioning optimally.  But it’s still not enough if the leader doesn’t operate with trust.

While this topic is worthy of its own article (see Six Tips for Leaders to build High Performing Teams) as a summary leaders need to be inclusive, understanding, show that they care, lead with conviction and be present to each individual.  They must model and demand accountability, be vulnerable and demonstrate that they make decisions based on what’s best for the customer or organisation (and not themselves).  They must trust and believe in each member of their team.

Creating Accountable Teams

“The genius at the top doesn’t make the team look good. A good team makes the person at the top look like a genius.”
Simon Sinek

Building a high trust team is a journey. It begins with the leader being really clear on what behaviours are required to improve team performance.  

Of course, this takes time and commitment.  Stick with it and you’ll have a powerful group of collaborators who work together for the good of the team, even during tough times.

This article is part of a three part series.  Visit Part 2 and Part 3: 8 Steps for Savvy Leaders to Create Meaning in their Team and 8 Tips for leaders to Create Connection in their Teams.  To learn even more, read my book TRUSTED TO THRIVE: How leaders create connected and accountable teams that unpacks it all in more detail.

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