How to create a psychologically safe workplace – and why you need it


More than statistics, kick-off meetings or the promise of year-end bonuses, team performance is driven by culture. A sign of a toxic culture is high turnover, something supportive and empathetic leaders try to avoid. While some industries have higher failure rates than others, a toxic company culture does 10 times more important than compensation in predicting voluntary departure.

In contrast, a hallmark of work environments that people want to live in is psychological safety, which encourages initiative and innovative thinking. It is up to leadership to create psychologically safe workplaces for their teams. Here are a few ways to do it and why it’s important.


Encourage different perspectives

It’s not always a bad thing when everyone on a team agrees – that’s called consensus. But when it arises out of fear, the result is groupthink. When groupthink arises, expressed loyalty to the group or boss outweighs the best choices. The dangers of groupthink include making unethical decisions and letting one person determine the direction of the team. History shows that groupthink has been linked to disastrous consequences, such as the space shuttle Challenger accident.

If you’re not sure if groupthink is happening within your team, pay attention to the telltale signs. Are people radio silent when asked for their opinion? Is there a general sense of apathy or complacency? It may be because team members don’t believe leadership values ‚Äč‚Äčtheir perspectives, a reasonable conclusion when divergent opinions are actively shot down or passively ignored.

This is reported by consultancy firm McChrystal Group. only 37% of the leaders encourage their teammates to express alternative or opposing viewpoints. While not asking for the perspectives of others does not imply resistance to differing ideas, it does discourage their expression. A psychologically safe environment is one where employees can openly disagree with leadership without fear of being punished for using their voice.

Asking for differing opinions and empowering your team members to express them ensures that the best ideas come to the fore. You reinforce healthy debate by promoting group discussions about the merits of each concept. Rather than making your mark on every initiative, show a willingness to listen to and act on team members’ contributions.

Make room for mistakes

In fear-based work environments, employees fear making mistakes. It’s not the usual diffidence to slip up and have an awkward conversation during the quarterly review. Instead, it’s a fear that leads to hiding serious problems through questionable behavior.

Let’s say your company evaluates sales teams based on closed sales only. In addition, there is constant pressure from leadership to beat the numbers by delivering continuous growth. While expansion goals are admirable, what if the company is already top dog in an oversaturated market? It may be unrealistic to beat last year’s numbers, leading employees to find “creative” ways to mask underperformance.

In addition, expecting perfection from your team can discourage risk-taking that leads to innovation. Employees may experience stunted professional growth because they are not in an environment where they can safely fail. Perfectionism can also lead to micromanagement, another factor that hinders psychological safety. When teams are micromanaged, they hold back, waiting for the boss to tell them what to do.

You can help your team without resorting to micromanagement if you time your offer of help well. Rather than trying to avoid a mistake, which conveys a lack of confidence, allow team members to go ahead and experience any issues firsthand. By remaining available but not imposing on yourself, you allow your subordinates to ask for help when they are ready.

Set clear expectations

Have you ever worked hard on a project only to be told by the higher ups that you were going the wrong way? You had to start over because the work you did is not close to the new road map. You probably felt defeated or even angry, wondering why leadership hadn’t outlined their expectations more clearly beforehand.

Now imagine this scenario happening repeatedly on every project your team is working on. They would have to develop a thick skin and a casual attitude to keep themselves in the game. But underneath it all, team members would lose confidence in their ability to perform, or in your ability to manage. They would no longer feel safe to take the initiative and would let any movement pass you first. Maybe they would notice problems and just wait for the chips to fall where they would.

Teams without clear performance expectations soon realize that they will still miss the mark. Consequently, they conclude that there is no percentage in putting in top-notch efforts. To avoid that fate, create psychological safety for your team by clearly defining expectations from the start.

If there is room for maneuver in the scope and design of a project, it is good to mention that at the beginning. But if you ask your team to produce work and then completely change the parameters afterwards, it will demotivate them. Conversely, giving them clear expectations encourages them to approach their work with confidence rather than just doing the bare minimum.

Creating psychological safety

Leaders are responsible for making sure their teams feel safe when expressing themselves at work. This includes raising concerns and offering ideas for overcoming challenges.

In the absence of psychological safety, employees become anxious and motivated by negative consequences rather than positive opportunities. Team performance suffers when initiative and talent run out the door. That’s why creating psychological safety is one of the most important things managers can do to help their teams reach their potential.