Four Tips for Building a Psychologically Safe Team

Tom Geraghty speaking into microphone

Is your organization looking to improve the effectiveness of your project teams? The most important factor you need to consider is psychological safety.

Psychological safety—the belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation—helps drive better decision-making, healthy group relationships, more adaptive teams and greater innovation. 

“When people feel psychologically safe, they're able to present their ideas,” said Tom Geraghty, founder of UK-based Psychological Safety and transformation lead at Red Hat Open Innovation Labs. “They're able to ask for help. They're able to admit mistakes. They're able to challenge the ideas of others and they're able to challenge the way the team or the entire organization works. If you feel somewhat safe, you may feel safe enough to raise your hand and ask for help—that's a powerful business or project accelerator.” 

Unfortunately, in many organizations that sense of safety is not well developed. 

“I personally feel things like the global financial crisis and other big disastrous ideas have gone on because there was not any challenge,” said Geraghty. “There are a lot of cases where bad ideas got into the real world and got into production, most likely because no one felt safe enough at any point to put a hand up and say, ‘I don't think it's a good idea. I don't think we should be doing this.’” 

Here are four ways project leaders can create an environment of psychological safety for their teams:

Bring the team together. Psychological safety is about understanding and knowing what the norms, values, expectations and ways of working are for a team. It takes time to define and it’s a process that teams need to go through on their own, according to Geraghty.  

“The team needs to distill [values] themselves and it needs to be facilitated in a workshop, rather than dictated. It is worth spending a good amount of time on, because this is the foundation for the entire performance of the project.” 

Once the team agrees on what is important to them, it becomes a social contract, which they can live by, but also come back to and modify when need be. 

Change the way the end goal of the project is viewed. “This shouldn't be the product or the widget, the material thing that you've made,” said Geraghty. “The outcome of work is learning how to do it better next time. If the project team were building a house, the outcome of the work should be to know how to build a better house the next time you do it.”   

According to Geraghty, the best way to accomplish this outlook is to frame everything as an experiment and an opportunity to learn and improve and have a go at doing it better next time. 

“Framing everything as an experiment makes it safe to fail, but it almost makes like failure doesn't exist,” he said. “The experiment never fails—you always learn something, even if the thing you built failed or didn't work out or wasn't successful in the market. That's a really powerful paradigm shift in leadership.”  

Hold team members accountable for their behavior. Not every team has players that want to play by the rules. For example, someone might speak over another person in a meeting and not let other people’s ideas be heard.   

“Because the team has created these values and behaviors in this social contract, people in the team can be held accountable for that agreement, because they have all made that agreement together,” said Geraghty. “This is why it's so important for a team to come up with it themselves, rather than it be an imposed set of rules.” 

He suggests the team call out negative behavior in a positive way. For example, if someone was speaking over other people, tell them it how it makes it difficult for others to speak up.  

“It means that the team can constantly modify and improve all the behaviors and everyone feels safe,” said Geraghty. 

Make a long-term investment. The importance of psychological safety is becoming more and more recognized across organizations. But it is more than a one-time investment, according to Geraghty.  

“It's not something that you can just have a program of a few posters up and then forget about it and move on,” he said. “It's got to be a permanent investment in true cultural and behavioral change across the organization, because it's easier to lose psychological safety than it is to build it.”