High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety: Here’s How You Can Create It on Your Startup Team

According to Paul Santagata, “There’s no team without trust.” (Harvard Business Review), and he couldn’t be more correct. 

Google’s Aristotle study, a research study conducted to understand what makes Google an effective team, showed that every high-performing team consistently had one thing in common: Psychological Safety

My earlier blog, Your Ultimate Guide to Unicorn Leadership and How it Takes Your Startup Team From Good to Great, shares six steps to creating an effective startup culture. The first and most crucial step to creating a winning culture is psychological safety.

Today, let's dive deeper into this first step and explore how to create an effective startup culture centered on psychological safety.

In this article, I will:

  • Define psychological safety.
  • Share why your team needs psychological safety.
  • Explain the characteristics of teams with a strong foundation in psychological safety.
  • Share three strategies you can use to implement psychological safety in your startup team.

What is psychological safety, and why is it important?

Psychological safety is defined as an individual's perception of the consequences of taking risks and being vulnerable in front of their teammates.

In other words, psychological safety is the belief that you won't be punished when you mess up.

The importance of psychological safety dates back to the beginning of our species.

We can understand the importance of psychological safety through evolutionary and biological psychology and apply that to our modern 21st-century lives.  

It turns out our brain processes a challenge from our boss, the competition of a colleague, or the dismissiveness of subordinates as a life-threatening situation.

Upon entering a situation such as the examples listed above, the part of our brain that processes fear, the amygdala, kicks into overdrive, taking over the higher processing centers of our brains.

As the amygdala kicks in, so makes our fight-or-flight response which continues to shut down the analytical aspects of our brains. While this behavioural response may have been fundamental in our evolutionary days, it's nothing but a hindrance now.

When our fight-or-flight response begins, our critical thinking skills take their leave. In a way, we begin to lose our minds when we need them most.

This 'brain shutdown' is what happens when the workplace feels threatening. In a psychologically unsafe workplace, this brain shutdown leads to unproductive behaviors. Conversely, psychological safety allows employees to take risks, speak their minds, and engage in creative and productive discussions—crucial components of innovation.

Psychological safety empowers employees to take risks and speak their minds. 

Researcher Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina found that positive emotions like trust, curiosity, and confidence expand our minds. In a psychologically safe environment, we become open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent, significantly enhancing our problem-solving and divergent thinking abilities (Harvard Business Review).

Also, our problem-solving capabilities and divergent thinking skyrocket under a properly psychologically safe environment. Both of which are essential to creative thinking.

Instead of seeing the workplace as dangerous, we see it as a challenge with psychological safety. This mindset allows us to work together with a team to solve problems productively and find solutions.

Trust is the key ingredient that fosters psychological safety among team members. It opens the door to authentic connections and paves the way for the remarkable collaboration that defines high-performance teams.

Without it, a symbiotic company culture cannot thrive. Instead, a culture of fear and intimidation can cause backlash and leave any other leadership programs and initiatives essentially useless.

What’s the difference between a team with high psychological safety vs. low psychological safety?

Research shows that psychologically safe teams are distinguishable from psychologically unsafe teams in multiple ways.

Often the amount of psychological safety on a team is measured through how team members present themselves at work, the beliefs and values of the team members, team norms and culture, how team members communicate, and the team's skills and capabilities.

Characteristics of a team with poor psychological safety include team members who are afraid to admit their mistakes because they fear the negative consequences of other team members.

Poor psychological safety also shows through team members who are quick to blame each other for things that go wrong, team members hold different values or beliefs from others, and teams whose culture is overgrown with conflict.

These characteristics show a team has poor communication skills, doesn't work with a set of shared values, and is run by a toxic culture.

Overall, these types of teams are unable to operate at their full potential.

When employees come to work with feelings of defeat and mistrust, they are unproductive and inefficient at their jobs. These teams have a low capacity for success.

Psychologically safe teams, on the other hand, can operate at a high capacity.

Team members feel motivated to come to work, causing them to be productive and successful.

Teams with high psychological safety operate with a growth mindset. They can learn from each other as well as their mistakes.

These teams share ideas openly and can create productive discussions from different perspectives, which allows them to be more innovative and make better strategic decisions.

How can you increase psychological safety on your startup team?  

Now that you understand the importance of psychological safety to your team's success, it's essential to know how to implement it.

Below I provide you with three ways that you can increase the psychological safety of your startup team.

1. Say no to conflict and yes to collaboration.

In the workplace true team success is found in win-win scenarios for everyone. 

As a team, you can’t compete with each other; you must never forget that it’s the team vs. the problem.

When conflict comes up, avoid triggering team members' fight or flight response by seeking mutually desired outcomes rather than allowing one perspective to dominate.

2. Transform blame into curiosity.

Blame and criticism create toxic conflict, which leads to defensiveness, arguments and disengagement.

Rather than allowing blame to become the leading voice on your team, change it to curiosity.

Do this by discouraging team members from making assumptions. Instead, teach them to interact with a growth mindset that inspires questions, discussions, and problem-solving.

3. Ask for feedback.

After a team discussion or meeting, ask your teammates for feedback.

This helps you illuminate blind spots in communication among the team, which helps to increase trust among team members.

When team members understand their thoughts are valued, you create a learning opportunity for the entire team, showing that they can rely on each other.

To learn more about creating psychological safety on your team, how you can measure it, increase it, and use it to your advantage, check out my workshops page.

4. Create belonging.

When we create belonging, we make a natural sense of connection and community among people. When people feel connected to each other, they know that they're safe to step outside of their comfort zone.

We find belonging by associating with others through belonging cues.

Belonging cues are subtle hints that give us a sense that another person shares the same norms and values. They create safe connections in groups and underlie a strong company culture, including personal proximity, eye contact, energy, mimicry, turn-taking, undivided attention, body language, vocal pitch, and conversation and interaction between members of the group.

They can be as simple as visual signals like someone wearing the same jacket as your favourite sports team or as complex as shared beliefs such as living in a democratic society.

To help you create belonging on your team, sign up for this free psychological safety questions activity. It provides you with a list of questions to help you and your team connect on a deeper level of trust and empathy, fostering improved communication, collaboration, and innovation.

Here at Unicorn Labs I run team building seminars and leadership workshops in Ottawa and Toronto locations to help your startup team level up their performance from good to great with strategies such as psychological safety. 

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