September 27, 2019

5 Ways to Build Psychological Safety On Your Team


Aaron Hurst

Does your team feel they can take risks?

Do you ever feel like members of your team are holding something back? Perhaps they are just dialing it in and not being proactive? They might be doing their job, but they certainly aren’t bringing their full selves to work.

The most likely cause is a lack of psychological safety.

In 2015, Google established that psychological safety is the foundation for their highly effective teams. These teams have a culture in which people feel comfortable taking a risk without feeling insecure or embarrassed.

Why Is Psychological Safety Critical?

When you don’t have psychological safety on a team, you instead have a culture of fear and disengagement. It is likely the number one reason why our study with NYU found that 66% of the workforce isn’t fulfilled at work.

This can be directly connected back to the way our brains work. To be happy and play well with others, we need high levels of the neurotransmitters and chemicals, serotonin and oxytocin.

If we feel like our voice and contribution is not valued, it decreases our sense of significance. This leads to low serotonin which is linked to depression. This creates a negative flywheel where we become less and less fulfilled and, eventually, check out.

Oxytocin, often referred to as the trust hormone, is triggered by a sense of belonging and relationships. When a team lacks psychological safety, members no longer feel a sense of belonging and they create barriers between themselves and others to protect themselves. Without oxytocin, we become pessimistic, our self-esteem drops, and our stress goes up.

Here is what I have learned about building psychological safety on teams:

The trick to building psychological safety on teams is to get these neurotransmitters firing again. If you can change the chemistry, you can change the way people show up.

ONE. Make work personal.

In my interviews of purpose-driven CEOs for Fast Company, one of the most common examples they give of working with purpose is having human conversations. Why does it work? It builds trust and increases oxytocin.

The CEOs talk about connecting with each member of their team regularly about more than the tasks at hand. They ask about weekends, kids, hopes, and dreams. This can be in one-on-one check ins. It is often also done at the start of meetings - everyone shares a quick personal update based on a prompt from the leader. Highlight of the weekend? What moved or inspired you this week? What is on your mind?

TWO. Model vulnerability.

If you are vulnerable, it helps people feel closer to you. This leads to oxytocin release which increases trust which in turn makes people more likely to mirror your behavior and to feel it is safe to take risks.

Easier said than done. What does it mean to be vulnerable? Admit when you make a mistake. Share a fear you have. Ask the team for help. Ask the team for feedback. Answer a question with “I don’t know.” If you aren’t comfortable being vulnerable, start with something small. It still needs to be something you wouldn’t have shared before, but not something that makes you breakout into a cold sweat.

THREE. Celebrate people.

We get serotonin to fire when we feel significant, so find one thing you can do to make each person on your team feel valued. Make a list of the top five things you admire about each person on your team. As you make the list, look for trends in what you admire about each person. This is their super power.

Now, anytime you see that super power used, let them know you see it. When you see opportunities that require that super power, tell them you need them. When you see challenges that will help them grow that super power, toss them their way.

FOUR. Clarify roles.

How well are the roles on your team defined. When people don’t have clear roles it prevents them from feeling significant and it also makes the rules of engagement with other people on the team unclear. This leads to psychological safety issues.

As a leader, I often find that I perceive roles as well defined but when I ask the team I get a very different picture. It is important to check in with members of your team about their perception about the clarity of their role and sense of its importance to the success of the team. If you don’t ask, you don’t know.

FIVE. Amplify the Problem

Mozilla had a great leadership development exercise. They drove emerging leaders to a small town and told them to go help people. They gave them no other direction and said they would be back to pick them up at the end of the day.

This created a very psychologically unsafe experience for a team outside of work. Can you imagine? Walking the streets trying to help strangers? Awkward! But by having that shared experience where they all felt unsafe, it actually created a sense of connection. It forced them to all be vulnerable together.

What are experiences your team could have outside of work together that would help them push through the wall and become vulnerable?

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