Creating Psychological Safety Leads to Happy Teams

Have you ever loved being part of a team? It’s a great feeling. Often, it doesn’t even matter what you’re working on as a group. Everyone shows up to work with enthusiasm, and all members support one another. The feeling of being on the team makes you excited to go to work every day. You could be digging ditches in the rain, but as long as you get to do it with that team, it’s going to be a positive, inspiring experience.

Conversely, working on some teams can take the wind out of your proverbial sails. Getting together is stressful as different team members jockey for leadership positions and tear each other down. You end up dreading every single team meeting. You look for ways to work alone.

Think about who was on those teams. In my experience, both types of teams can be made up of smart, passionate people. Both types of teams can have diverse members. Both types of teams—and this is the sticker—can be successful in their final outcomes. But working on one of those teams is a completely different experience from working on the other. Why should that be?

Group Norms Determine Psychological Safety

Interestingly enough, there is strong sociological research showing that the components of the team aren’t a determining factor in how it feels to be on a team. The single biggest contributing factor to how teams feel is the degree of psychological safety felt by the members. There is also evidence that something called “group norms” play a strong role in how safe a team feels.

In other words, the way the team “feels” is established by the way the team behaves.

As a leader on a team, I want all of my teams to feel great. I want those teams to perform well and to provide a place of psychological safety. What can I do as a leader to change group norms and encourage psychological safety? To start, there are two very simple questions to ask.

1. What Happens When Team Members Make a Mistake?

Take a moment and think about how mistakes are treated on your team. If you are the leader of that team, what is your response to a team member’s mistake? Do you dig into the circumstances around the mistake and ask why this happened? Do you decrease your trust in the person making the mistake? Do you call them out in front of the group?

It’s a common assumption to think that maintaining a high level of accountability will keep mistakes and errors at a minimum. And you’d probably be right! If you took a quick survey, you might find that errors appear to be at a minimum on this type of team. However, by seeking to eliminate mistakes (and succeeding), you may sacrifice the feeling of safety on the team.

Although the number of reported errors in this type of environment can be low, significant sociological studies in organizations of different sizes and types show that the only thing a punitive environment encourages is the cover-up of mistakes. Mistakes are still made in this type of environment, but they aren’t reported because people have a fear of being held to account. This creates the appearance of a competent team with few errors made, but the experience of the members can be one of fear and reticence to take risks.

A non-punitive, mistake-tolerant environment allows people to be open and honest about errors and mistakes. Sure, the number of reported mistakes might be higher. But there are greater levels of trust and a stronger feeling of safety amongst team members.

In this environment, people feel more free to be themselves. Team members feel empowered to take risks and be honest. Engagement metrics on these teams will be higher as they feel free to innovate in unconventional ways. Mistakes will be made, but breakthroughs will also occur.

As the leader of a group, you have the ability to encourage a feeling of safety by making it a team norm to tolerate mistakes and foster an environment of encouragement rather than high accountability.

2. How Do Teams Relate in Meetings?

Show me a team meeting, and I’ll tell you how the team is performing. Significant research shows that teams where members speak in roughly the same proportion tend to outperform teams that are dominated by one or a few personalities.

As someone who leads teams, you can effect change by spending less time talking and more time facilitating. Find ways to bring out the best in less expressive members, and ask the more bombastic members of the team to hold back in preference for the group. When more members of the team have input into the conversational life of the team, people on the team experience a higher degree of psychological safety. As a leader, all you have to do is give everyone in the group the opportunity to express themselves.

Another signifier of team health is emotional awareness of how others on the team are feeling during the meeting. When empathic members discern other’s emotional states and adjust the course and tenor of their communication accordingly, it creates a stronger sense of psychological safety within the group. If someone is feeling left out, they should be invited to join in. If someone is feeling criticized or attacked, they should be reassured, and apologies should be issued where needed.

All of this runs counter to what we intuitively understand about team performance. People may think that efficiently run team meetings with tightly scoped agendas are crucial to team success, but the real key to a cohesive and enjoyable team is being in tune with one another and seeking to hear from each member.

As a leader, you have as much control over the atmosphere within the team as you do over the agenda for a meeting. It’s up to you to set the tone for each team meeting. You can facilitate a meeting so that everyone feels heard and respected. You can make sure quieter (and younger) team members make their voices heard. You can pivot the conversation to address a team member’s emergent concern. A less formal team where people know they will be heard and feel encouraged to go off-script will result in a more cohesive unit where people enjoy coming to work every day.

I find thinking about team norms in this way to be empowering as a leader. No matter who is on the team, every team I lead can be a group I enjoy when I follow two simple rules:

  1. Tolerate mistakes & errors.
  2. Make sure everyone is heard.

What has your experience leading teams been like? How have you made your team a place where everyone wants to be?