The highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety, the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake.

Psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — all of which are essential for innovation. Especially in today’s uncertain environment, psychological safety is vital- but fragile too.

During our recent online event Innov8rs Connect – Talent & Teams, Laura Delizonna, PhD, an Executive Coach and Culture Consultant, and author of the book Mindful Leaders, addressed how organizations can increase psychological safety and with that bring the smartest and brightest minds together to achieve the previously unimaginable.

Laura Delizonna’s talk as recorded during Innov8rs Connect – Talent & Teams. Check the summaries from all talks in the event playbook. Free download via

What Makes For High Performing Teams

In a recent study of Google's highest performing teams, experts discovered that high performing teams exhibited the following predictors:

Psychological Safety: Members knew that they could explore and innovate without fear of punishment or retribution in the event of an error or mistake.

Dependability: Team members and leadership shared a level of dependability that allowed them to work freely and rely on each other.

Structure and Clarity: Team members had a clear understanding of the structure, their role, and the roles of others within the project.

Meaning: Individuals working on high performing teams felt that their work would have a meaningful impact for the greater good of the world.

Impact: Team members felt that their individual skills and contributions made an impact on the project and the organization as a whole.

Further research into psychological safety has shown that it is an exceptionally strong driver of performance in both professional and personal arenas.

In addition, it was noted that error rates and turnover intention are significantly reduced when psychological safety is high.

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is defined by Amy Edmonton of Harvard Business School as "a climate where people feel it is safe to take risks and be vulnerable." In essence, psychological safety allows you to bring your best contribution without fear of negative consequences. It results from beliefs that:

  • Mistakes will not be held against you.
  • Team members can bring up problems and touchy issues without fear of punishment or retaliation.
  • Each individual's unique skills and talents are valued and utilized, and their strengths are used on a day-to-day basis.

Contrary to what you may believe, psychological safety is not the same as "being nice". Nor is it about job security, making everyone feel good, or sugarcoating feedback. It is the answer to the question: "Are you with me or against me?" The answer to this question powerfully shapes individual behaviors.

Psychological Safety and Accountability

The level of psychological safety and accountability must be kept in balance in order to create the optimal environment. High accountability with high psychological safety is ideal and promotes high performance from team members. With high standards, movement, and high psychological safety, you will have the drive you need to promote innovation.

Low accountability but high psychological safety creates a comfortable environment where nobody will really try to innovate, they'll just coast within the status quo. Low accountability and low psychological safety results in apathy and frustration, where employees will do the bare minimum to get by.

High accountability and performance standards with low psychological safety results in an extremely high level of employee anxiety. This is where people will try to hide errors, and will not speak up even when they see a problem or have a concern.

Avoidance & Defense rather than Responsibility & Risk Taking

In general, low levels of psychological safety will result in avoidant and defensive behaviors rather than the responsibility and risk taking behavior necessary for successful innovation.

Common Avoidance & Defense behaviors include:
Avoiding Conflict
Blame or Toxic Criticism
Hiding Mistakes
Image Management

Responsibility & Risk Taking includes:
Positive Conflict
Taking Ownership
Discussing Mistakes
Care and Candor

How Can We Build Psychological Safety?

Whether you are a leader in your organization or a contributor, psychological safety is critical for all healthy relationships, both personal and professional. A high level of psychological safety creates trust between individuals. There are four key behaviors that you can apply to build psychological safety:

Admit Fallibility

Nobody is perfect. Be honest with the messiness inherent in all interpersonal relationships, and recognize the inherent uncertainty and risk in every aspect of daily life.

There is no Creativity Without Vulnerability

Part of admitting fallibility is embracing vulnerability. The process of innovation starts with the statement "I don't know". The creative process is predicated upon the idea that nobody has the answer to the problem being posed, so we are better together working toward a solution. Creativity is at its most basic the creation of something that did not exist before, and can therefore only begin from a place of not-knowing.

Growth Mindset

Admitting fallibility can only be accomplished through a growth mindset, in which you admit your mistakes and learn from them. Reframe mistakes as essential information on the path to success, embrace them, and use them to adjust your course in order to avoid future problems. The only way that corrections can be made is if we have the courage to choose vulnerability and admit that we are fallible.

Bring Curiosity and Empathy

To grow psychological safety, approach situations with honest and open curiosity and empathy. Rather than listening to formulate your side of a conversation, truly listen to understand what the speaker is saying. Although most people consider speaking the most important aspect of communication, more than half of successful communication is listening.

Take the opportunity to open your mind to the speaker and determine their hopes, fears, intentions, and challenges. Get into their mind in order to create a sense of collaboration and cooperation between co-workers, leaders, and employees. Not only does this create a level of camaraderie between you, it allows you to predict the direction that everyone is moving in so that you can work toward the same goal.

Use your curiosity to gain complexity in a situation and enhance your communication. We really don't know what is happening in other peoples' lives, and we can only bring our own empathy and listening skills to create social awareness and an environment of care, trust, and candor. People who are cared for are more likely to trust, and will then grow more candid, building collaboration and cooperation within the team.

Recognize and Appreciate Others

Along with admitting fallibility and listening with curiosity and empathy, psychological safety depends on emotional investment from the participants. When people feel recognized and valued, their behavior changes accordingly.

B.I.G. Recognition Method

To ensure that you are providing ample recognition and appreciation, follow the B.I.G. Recognition Method:

  • Behavior: Detail the specific contribution or behavior you appreciated.
  • Impact: State how the action or behavior positively impacted you or the situation.
  • Greater Ability: Explain how the action or behavior demonstrates a greater trait that you admire in them.

Positive Conflict

Finally, engaging in and facilitating positive conflict is key to ensuring psychological safety. Not all conflict is bad. In fact, some of it can be extremely beneficial. Between trusting team members, positive conflict is a call for curiosity. Rather than signaling discord, positive conflict simply signals that different individuals have different perspectives, needs, or objectives.

Positive conflict opens the door for open communication and discussion, and learning should always result. With positive conflict, individuals gain more complexity and understanding of individuals with different views. It allows for investigation without attack, blame, shaming, or sidelining.

Respond vs. React

In order to ensure that conflict is positive and productive, consider your reply before you speak. Are you reacting defensively or are you responding thoughtfully to their ideas? Use your listening skills to see the discussion form their perspective, and allow yourself time to consider your response from their point of view. It is easy to find yourself reacting, especially if you are particularly invested in an idea, but it is important to ask yourself: do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective?

Implementations and Commitments

Now that we have examined the four behaviors necessary for psychological safety: admitting fallibility, bringing curiosity and empathy, recognizing and appreciating others, and engaging in positive conflict, it is time to consider ways that you can implement these behaviors in your organization. Take the time to consider the following questions:

  1. How can you apply these four behaviors?
  2. How do you see them working in your own team/organization?
  3. How can you be a force to create the microculture of psychological safety?
  4. Culture is simply the norm of behaviors and values within the organization, so how can you be a force for that within your one-on-ones, small teams, and larger teams for building psychological safety?

In order to create a culture of psychological safety within your organization, consider your own approach and become a force for change. Be conscious of your words and actions, and avoid unintentional destroyers of psychological safety such as dismissive words and actions.

With conscientious implementation and committed deployment of these behaviours, you can help to create an environment of psychological safety in your team and organization as a whole.

If you’d like to work with Laura Delizonna on increasing psychological safety and creating high-performing innovation teams, join the Innov8rs Connect Unconference (14 July-17 September) where Laura will hosting a Ask Me Anything session.