Why Psychological Safety Isn't Just A Leadership Problem

Tania Braukamper
Tania Braukamper

February 14, 2022

Why Psychological Safety Isn't Just A Leadership Problem
Psychological Safety

The plane is about to take off, but something doesn’t quite look right. 🛫

As a co-pilot, you know this is potentially critical. Do you a) tell the captain, or b) hold your tongue?

The answer seems obvious. Yet fear of speaking up is scarily common — and the cause of numerous aviation disasters throughout history.

What was missing in these situations was psychological safety

Psychological safety is feeling comfortable to speak up, even if that means challenging authority. And it’s a predictor of high-performing teams. 

Obviously, psychological safety isn’t always a matter of life or death. But it is always a factor in team performance, regardless of the industry you work in. 

In fact, research by Google’s operations team found it to be the #1 most important factor in successful teams.

Let’s look at how things can go wrong when an environment isn’t psychologically safe — and what you can do about it. 

❓ The Problem: 

In many workplaces, people hold back on admitting mistakes, asking questions, or offering ideas.

Why? According to researchers James Detert and Amy Edmondson, it all comes down to self-preservation. Team members:

  • Fear they’ll be reprimanded for challenging the status quo.
  • Aren’t comfortable sharing their ideas because they might be belittled.
  • Don’t want to embarrass their bosses by showing them up in front of other subordinates.
  • Feel vulnerable publicly engaging in the learning process (asking questions, making mistakes, etc).

🌊 The Consequences: 

When team members hold back on opinions and suggestions, the team misses out on valuable opportunities to innovate and improve. 

And that’s the best-case scenario (😳).

Worst case: team members stay silent on crucial issues, and you keep barreling towards a disaster that could have otherwise been prevented. 

Take, for example, the Volkswagen “Dieselgate” scandal. As Amy Edmonson notes, VW’s fear-based leadership style created a “culture of silence” that permeated the entire division (and we all know how that turned out). 

✅ The Solution:

A psychologically safe environment is mostly seen as the responsibility of management. However, at Skoach, we approach it from both the leadership and team member side.

Here are some ways to foster psychological safety:

For leaders:

  • Be curious: make a conscious effort to ask questions and draw out ideas from your team — that might mean pre-planning some questions before you go into a meeting.
  • Encourage participation: let your team know their input is valuable and that the team is stronger when they share it. 
  • Show humility: asking for input is not a weakness — research shows that humble leaders are stronger and more successful.

For team members:

  • Speak candidly: sometimes, it’s easy to assume your opinion is not welcome, when it is not the case. Give a chance to sharing an honest opinion in a constructive way. 
  • Be open to feedback: learning how to receive and respond to feedback and looking at it as a growth opportunity makes team members more willing to take risks.

It goes deeper than that, of course. But creating psychological safety – and avoiding plane crashes – starts here.

💬 Quote

“It was amazing to see how connected the team is and the trust we have with each other to talk out loud about our concerns, anxieties, failures and worries." — a Skoach user after completing a team challenge to foster Psychological Safety.

🤔 Something To Think About:

What’s one question you can ask your team today to encourage them to speak up?
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