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Psychological safety boosts team performance and innovation

Leaders can create psychological safety for their teams by listening closely, normalizing failure as a learning experience and holding inclusive meetings, write Karolin Helbig and Minette Norman.

6 min read


psychological safety

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Psychological safety is a trending topic in business, but even if you’ve never heard the term, you know the feeling. When you are in a psychologically safe environment, you are comfortable speaking up, asking questions and being your imperfect, authentic self. When there’s an absence of psychological safety, you are guarded, hesitant to share your viewpoint and feel you need to fit in rather than show up as your true self. 

Karolin Helbig

Harvard Business School professor Amy C. Edmondson, who has been researching psychological safety for decades, defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes and the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Google’s multiyear research study “Project Aristotle” attempted to find the formula for building the most successful teams. They ultimately discovered that the single most important factor for team success was psychological safety.

Minette Norman

Think of psychological safety as the essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals needed to develop healthy teams. As a leader, you play a critical role in this dynamic. Here are three effective ways to increase psychological safety in your team.

1. Run inclusive meetings

In many professional meetings, only a small percentage of participants regularly feel comfortable contributing. If you start paying attention to what happens in meetings, you may notice that two or three people take up most of the speaking time, while others remain silent.

When most team members feel uncomfortable speaking up in meetings, everyone misses out on valuable and diverse viewpoints.

One of the most important changes you can make to your meetings is to appoint someone to facilitate more equitable airtime and make it safe for all voices and dissenting ideas to be heard. As anyone who has ever facilitated a meeting knows, this is not an easy job. It takes attentive listening and finesse to make sure that everyone has a chance to contribute and that no single person dominates or derails the meeting.

  • Establish ground rules for your meetings in advance and remind participants of the rules at the start of the meeting.
  • Monitor speaking time and interruptions. If someone is talking too much, politely thank them for their ideas and invite other people to contribute. If someone interrupts someone else, say something like, “Alex hasn’t finished their thought; let’s let them finish.”
  • Share your viewpoint as a leader last, and intentionally ask for an alternative point of view if the group is quickly converging on one person’s idea.
  • Use an online collaboration tool that allows everyone to share their ideas on a virtual whiteboard.

2. Normalize failure

There is no innovation and no success without failure along the way. If you want success, you must embrace failure as an inevitable part of the journey — anything else is unrealistic. That’s why leaders need to destigmatize failure. It is not something unacceptable that needs to be avoided; it’s a necessary byproduct of innovation. In fact, an absence of failure might indicate an absence of innovation. 

As a leader, make it clear that your goal is not to prevent failure but to learn from it as quickly as possible on the road to success.

  • Shift your mindset. Let go of the unrealistic expectation that success without failure is possible. Learn about successful people and discover the failures and setbacks they overcame.
  • Set explicit expectations. Whenever your team tries something new, emphasize that you expect failure along the way. Say, “This is new; we won’t get right the first time,” or “Let’s share and learn from our failures.”
  • Admit your own mistakes, failures and lessons learned, thereby modeling the behavior you want to promote in your team.
  • Respond productively when failures happen. Don’t let yourself be triggered to criticize, blame and punish. Ask questions instead such as “What does this experience tell us?”
  • Schedule regular blameless postmortems. Ask curious questions about what didn’t go as expected without blaming anyone.

3. Prioritize human connection

The need for human connection is fundamental and hardwired for us as human beings. As a species, we have evolved to be part of a community. Your role as a leader is to ensure that every member of your team is heard, seen and valued for who they are as an individual. 

What’s the best way to start connecting with others? By mastering the art of listening.

Listening is probably the most underdeveloped leadership skill. We are rarely listening as much as we think we are. We focus more on presenting our own opinion, and when we are not talking, we are listening with the intent to respond, not to understand.

  • Commit to fully understanding the other person’s viewpoint before sharing yours. Accept their perspective as their truth, even if you don’t agree with it.
  • Focus on your conversation partner. Give the gift of full attention to the person who is speaking. Eliminate external distractions, such as your phone or web browser.
  • Check your understanding. Paraphrase and summarize to ensure you’re truly understanding what the other person is saying.
  • Ask the other person to elaborate. The prompt “tell me more” is a powerful tool for inviting people to openly share and explore their ideas.
  • Tolerate silence. When your conversation partner pauses, resist jumping in with your own ideas. Often, after a brief silence, there will be a whole new level of open communication.

If you start implementing these three approaches in your work environment, notice how your team dynamics change. It takes ongoing commitment and practice, as well as a high level of self-awareness, to cultivate psychological safety. The good news is that small behavior changes done consistently can change the culture of a team, and the rewards can be enormous. 


Karolin Helbig, who spent more than 15 years with McKinsey as a top management consultant and in leadership development, and has a deep expertise in science, helps leaders increase their effectiveness, optimize team performance, and transform their organizations through mindset, emotional intelligence, and psychological safety. Building on her three decades leading global, technical teams in the software industry, Minette Norman today focuses on developing transformational leaders who create inclusive working environments with a foundation of psychological safety. 

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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