Psychological Safety: The Secret Ingredient For High-Performing Teams


What makes great teams great? Most of us would instinctively think of competence. High-performing teams are highly competent; therefore, the most important condition for it must be to have highly skilled team members.

Others would say a results-oriented team leader. Clearly, a team that consistently outperforms others should have a leader that has superior execution skills? Well, not quite.

Recent academic research, along with data from Google’s Project Aristotle, it’s psychological safety.


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Defining psychological safety

According to the Harvard Business Review (HBR), psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake.

One of the most significant findings of Project Oxygen (Google’s other successful research project) was that people don’t want to come to work feeling as though they have to put on a different face.


In other words, the ideal working environment was one where they felt like they could be their full selves, trust their colleagues, and show vulnerability without being penalised for it.


Why it’s important

When people feel safe enough at work, they:

  • Set the stage for the kind of deep trust needed for clockwork-like cooperation and great teamwork
  • Are better able to combine their strengths and face challenges together
  • Direct their attention and energy towards effective collaboration instead of on defending themselves from in-group threats


What psychologically safe teams do

Essentially, teams that are abundantly rich with psychological safety can communicate much more effectively than those that aren’t.

Since team members feel so safe around one another, they’re much more adept at giving, receiving, and asking for feedback. Additionally, because no one feels a distressing need to protect themselves from looking ignorant or incompetent to others, people are more willing to participate fully in discussions without holding back.


They’re not worried about whether the new idea they just thought of before the meeting is going to make them look stupid and incompetent. Neither do they hesitate to ask “obvious” questions or provide input that runs contrary to the team’s general consensus.

Psychologically safe teams:

  • Don’t shoot people down when something goes wrongThey don’t play the blame game or ridicule and insult each other. Instead, they stay solution-focused, systematically working together to figure out how to solve the problem.

  • Are more willing to objectively reflect on their failures to see how they can improve for future projectsRuminating never benefits anyone, but it’s important to reflect objectively on past failures so that you know what went wrong, and what not to repeat in the future. Team members who feel psychologically safe feel more comfortable owning up to and taking responsibility for their mistakes.

    They also tend to look at failures as an opportunity to learn and move forward together as a team instead of as an indicator of incompetence.

  • Are more innovative and creativeResearch has shown that psychological safety in teams encourages creative thinking, according to HBR. When people feel safe at work, they’re more comfortable taking the risks associated with innovation, such as challenging the status quo and coming up with unconventional, out-of-the-box ideas. Both of these factors are vital to stellar innovation in any organisation.



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