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Psychological Safety: The Secret to Building Trust in Teams

May 19, 2023

Trust is a dynamic and delicate part of any relationship, whether that be personal, professional, or familial. It’s easy to break, easy to lose, and extremely difficult to rebuild. It’s no different on teams: others may expect you to show up for them only to drop the ball when you need them most.  

In the context of the workplace, psychological safety and trust are synonymous. Once members of your team are confident that they belong and feel safe to make mistakes, create value, and be candid about change, that trust will spread to all other aspects of work life. 

Maybe you’ve interacted with leaders and colleagues who punish your mistakes in humiliating, dehumanizing ways. Or with people who won’t let you try new things and claim that exploration is a waste of time. If not either of those, then with people who make you feel inferior for not knowing an answer, or needing more help and resources to accomplish a task.

How could you ever expect a culture of trust to come from that much toxicity? Trust starts with feeling safe to be human at work. 

An overhead view of a rowing team

Safe to Not Know

Humans aren’t robots, but sometimes we’re treated as if we’re expected to have a database-like brain, full of answers to any and all questions thrown our way. And if we don’t know? Well, for some, admitting that they don’t know poses a direct threat to their competency, and ultimately their career. 

Nobody can be expected to know everything, yet we often hold ourselves (and others) to that standard. Alleviate the pressure of these treats by establishing a culture of learning where your colleagues feel safe to admit that they don’t yet know, but are willing to find out. Here are three ways to build learner safety on your team:

Value honesty over correct answers.

Work is inherently performance-based. For some people, admitting that they don't know is equated with admitting that they cannot perform. Honesty will move the needle forward a whole lot faster than pretending to have the answers. Choose to value your colleague’s honesty over their perceived inability to contribute.

Ask, "What do you know?"

Just because someone doesn't have the full answer doesn’t mean that they don't have insightful contributions that will help your team move forward. Don't let your colleague shut down after admitting that they don't know, politely probe for what they do know about a given situation. Use guiding questions and curiosity to glean what you can from their expertise and experiences.

Ask, "Where should we start?"

Your colleague doesn’t know the answer right away. That’s okay. You can get them on the path towards finding out. Brainstorm some possible starting points, and be sure to define expectations and outcomes. When you give your team members the tools they need to find the information they don’t have, you empower them with autonomy. You metaphorically hand them the keys and ask them to take the wheel and do the critical thinking themselves.

A messy stack of papers and folders

Safe to Need More

As you increase your expectations and raise your standards, your team members will likely need more resources. In most organizations, asking for resources is either passively discouraged or actively shamed. Many leaders value a scrappy work ethic and still expect flawless, million-dollar results. This isn’t sustainable.

Your team members need to know that they can ask for what they need (whether that be more time, better equipment, better training, or more space) without fear of being ignored or being demoted for being “needy.” Regardless of whether or not you can fulfill their every need (because we get it, budgets exist), a culture of psychological safety will help you support your team members regardless. Here are three ways to build contributor safety to ask for more resources on your team:

Identify needs before options.

If you work in a leadership role it's your team member’s job to identify the need, but it’s your job to fulfill it. Eliminate the pressure on your team members to present the best solution up-front. This conversation will go well if you first acknowledge the need at hand. Step two? Ask to see a range of options. Your colleagues will be more willing to ask for more resources when they know that identifying needs is part of their job description.

Acknowledge the tradeoff that comes with refusal.

If you do choose to refuse a request for more resources, let your team know that you understand what you’ll be missing out on as a result. Your colleagues will be much more likely to ask again if they know that you understand the benefits of the resource they’re asking for. If it’s a timing issue, be sure to communicate when you could revisit the request.

Go to bat for other departments.

If you notice that another team in your organization needs more resources, but isn’t getting them, bring it up. Show your colleagues that you’re aware of their needs, even needs that have nothing to do with you or your position.

A man pointing to a laptop screen

Safe to Question

Disagreeing or questioning the way things are done puts all of the eyes on you. This is why people usually keep their disagreements to themselves: they may not know how to express their reasoning, they may feel inadequate, or maybe they think their view is insignificant. Regardless, innovation starts with questions and is fueled by healthy disagreement. 

Leaders don’t accidentally build a speak-up culture. An intentional culture of psychological safety will build your team’s confidence that their voice matters, even if their voice goes against the grain of what’s currently being done. If you’re struggling to build an effective speak-up culture in your organization, try these three things:

Ask for the bad news.

You’ll be surprised what people are willing to call out when they’re asked specifically for the bad news in tandem with the good news. They will highlight problems that, when solved, will pay dividends for your team. It will show your colleagues that you embrace all aspects of the innovation process.

Build on the ideas of others.

Adopt a “yes, and..” mentality in brainstorming sessions. Don’t be afraid to take someone’s idea and add to it. This will help your team know that they can disassemble and rebuild things that they didn’t initially create. They will begin to feel obligated to make things better, regardless of who “owns” them.

Assign dissent.

If you’ve found yourself in an echo chamber or knee-deep in groupthink, ask a colleague to play devil’s advocate. Give them permission to disagree, even if they don’t think something needs to be re-examined. Ask questions like: “What are we missing here?” or “Could this be done differently?”

A desk with a laptop, mouse, pencils, and orange field notebook

Safe to Explore

Leaders often expect innovative outcomes under conditions built for execution. The truth is, innovation needs time. New, groundbreaking solutions need space to breathe and lots of attention. There will be times when your team will pursue an idea only to find out that it, for whatever reason, won’t work. 

In a culture with high levels of psychological safety, exploration won’t be treated as a waste of time. In fact, teams will know that they have the space to try new things without fear of punishment, greater restrictions, or losing future resources. Here are three ways to build challenger safety on your team:

Encourage consistent learning.

When your team believes that their learning is supported and valued, they’ll be more likely to learn aggressively. Aggressive learners have a stream of new inputs and can consistently bring new things to the table.

Identify what was learned.

It’s easy to assign the label “mistake” to an exploration without a concrete outcome. Mistakes are most valuable when you can determine what was learned from them. Verbalize what new information you now have because of the exploration process. Make your colleagues believe in the underlying benefits of their efforts, even if they didn’t bring solutions.

Ask for half-baked answers.

When people share their unfinished thoughts, they allow those ideas to be built upon by others in the room. They may not share these half-baked answers if they feel pressure to only contribute through perfectly formed, well-thought-out ideas.  Once others see that these are acceptable (and rewarded) contributions, they’ll follow suit.

A man sitting in an empty auditorium

Safe to Fail

We aren’t going to get it right every time. In fact, if you’re never making mistakes you probably aren’t pushing boundaries, innovating, or doing anything interesting. We’re human, so we’re bound to fail sometimes, fall short sometimes, or experience oversight.

The faster you can get mistakes out in the open, the faster they can be a valuable asset to your team.  It feels different to work in a space that celebrates learning and expects that mistakes will occur naturally in any innovative environment. Rewarding mistakes in your organization is a refreshing way to set yourselves apart from your competition. Here are three ways to do it:

Acknowledge effort.

If mistakes and failure are catalysts of innovation, then the effort that it took to make a mistake (and discover that it was, indeed, a mistake) should be appreciated. Your team wants to know that you appreciate their efforts separate from their outcomes. Your colleagues want to know that you’re now one step closer to the solution.

Offer a way forward.

The person who made a mistake generally doesn’t want to dwell on it. Motivate them to move along and continue contributing by offering clear solutions or simple steps forward. It doesn't have to be complicated to get them back into the groove of things. Teach them that mistakes aren't setbacks, they're data points on the way towards success.

Make failure the expectation.

In a truly dynamic and innovative environment, failure isn't the exception to the rule, it's the expectation. This isn't to say that consistently making the same mistakes over and over again should be celebrated with a pat on the back and a cookie. However, when your team knows that you expect them to fall short sometimes, they'll be quick to report the mistake, fix it, and keep moving forward.

Trust = Psychological Safety + Consistency

Trust builds across an organization when psychological safety is met with consistency. Don’t expect perfect, shatterproof trust to immediately come from day one of your culture initiative. Your teams will need confidence in the safeties that psychological safety provides, and the culture of rewarded vulnerability that it creates, before they’ll really start trusting each other. 

But once they do? You’ll be ready to leave innovation-stifling norms behind and start creating value exponentially. 

multiple covers of the behavior guide next to each other

Download 120+ Behaviors to Practice Psychological Safety

If psychological safety is the #1 variable in team performance, how do you improve it? This is a good place to start. With 120+ practical, specific behaviors, the Behavioral Guide will help you know what to start, what to stop, and how to infuse healthy interaction into your work life. It's the companion to The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety Book. Download it today.

Download the Guide