Your Guide to Why Psychological Safety is Necessary for the Workplace

"The minute we start discounting someone as a number, as a product of their efforts, we don't see them as human. And when you don't see someone as human, you reach a point of, I think, probably the most awful place you could be, be it personally or inside a business."

— Craig Handy, Team Lead at Shopify and Founder of Jameson Strategies Consulting

In the second episode of our podcast, Unicorn Leaders, our guest, Craig Handy, discusses why leaders need to focus on creating psychological safety in the workplace and how your business won't grow without it.

As discussed at Unicorn Labs, psychological safety is a foundational element in the six levels of high-performing teams. It's the end-all-be-all. If your team can't achieve this first level, reaching others will be nearly impossible. You have to get it right for every other piece to fall into place.

When there is no psychological safety, most feedback managers receive from team-building exercises or coaching meetings lacks essential data because people will hold back or not be fully honest about their thoughts. Low or lack of psychological safety usually scares people from doing things because they fear consequences or repercussions.

This is why psychological safety is the starting point: it’s essential to every aspect of the workplace.

When people go to work, they often feel like they can't be themselves, which is exhausting. No one wants to leave part of their personality at home!

Your job is your life. Today's workforce wants to be able to bring their whole self to work. Feeling psychologically safe allows employees to be free to share personal and vulnerable aspects of their lives, thus creating deep relationships.

As managers, we can't just focus on efficiency.

It's about collaboration, not just results.

It's about going to work in the morning, talking to the team of engineers, sending emails to the marketers, jumping on a conference call, and go from team to team.

‘We want to work with people who see and hear us. We want to feel like our work matters.’

In 2012, Google did an entire study on creating high-performing teams.

At the heart of Silicon Valley, they had many ideas about efficiency as a data-driven technology company. The ironic part is that in the end, their research came to the same conclusions that most good managers already know: Psychological safety in the workplace is the key.

Why focus on psychological safety?

As a leader, how we respond to people's mistakes directly influences whether we're creating a psychologically safe or unsafe environment.

How you react to someone making a mistake is the foundation. Do you blame them, make them feel stupid, or use it as a learning opportunity?

If you're playing basketball when you take a shot and miss, did you fail or miss a shot?

Taking shots and missing isn't a failure, yet making mistakes at work seems to be.

Sometimes you miss enough shots that you lose the game. But are you a failure if you lose? You've got a whole season ahead of you. Even if the season falls, you've got many seasons after that if you continue to improve and grow.

Psychological safety starts with you and your ability to react effectively to other people's mistakes.

Your reaction sets the grounds for whether the mistake becomes educational or something to hide, setting the tone for everything else.

What should managers know about psychological safety?

Its importance goes back to our ancestors.

As human beings, as tribal animals, our evolutionary and biological needs as a species help us understand the importance of psychological safety today.

Neuroscience shows that when we enter a high-stress situation, such as a conflict with a colleague or a boss, our brain shifts to a fear response, and the amygdala part of our brain takes over.

It almost entirely shuts down the frontal cortex and takes over the brain.

When the amygdala’s in control, we're in a fight, flight or freeze response, and the analytical aspects of our brain can’t function.

This neurological response might seem extreme, but it’s the reality.

1. Our brain processes a challenge from our boss and considers these events life-threatening.

Remember, we instinctively pack animals.

We're afraid of being ostracized from the group because if we're no longer in a tribe, we might not survive.

2. Whenever we face any danger, harsh criticism or a dismissive challenge, our brain reacts as though we’re in a life-threatening situation.

When you’re in a conflict with someone at work, they may listen to you, but their brain is emotionally flooded.

The workplace starts to feel threatening. If you were confronted, you spend the entire rest of the day thinking about it. Your primal instincts take over.

How do we expect our colleagues to be creative or innovative in this headspace? How do we expect them to come up with good ideas? How do we expect them to work well with people if fear shuts them down?

Your team isn’t going to believe in the good of people or give people the benefit of the doubt. They will focus on themselves and protect themselves because of their survival instincts.

On the flip side, when psychological safety DOES exist in the workplace, we see creativity, productivity and innovation rise over time as the level of psychological safety increases.

It takes time to build this level of trust within the workplace.

Psychological safety is an individual's perception of the consequences of taking risks, being vulnerable in front of their teammates and opening up. Being able to deal with the problems and not just hide from them.

What happens when you’re missing psychological safety?

When leaders are replaced by people who don’t consider community belonging and psychological safety, we see innovation and productivity decline.

When looking at a psychologically dangerous team, we find team members afraid of making and admitting mistakes because they’re too scared of the negative consequences from team members.

Fixing blame starts to become a big part of the team culture. Team members quickly blame each other when things go wrong, and they don't want to admit their mistakes.

Team members hold different values or beliefs on issues like how to operate, treat customers, treat each other, and communicate. When combined, this creates the ideal environment for a psychologically dangerous team.

On the other hand, psychologically safe teams can operate at high capacity. Team members feel motivated to come to work, making them successful and productive.

The teams with high psychological safety operate in a growth mindset because they don't see mistakes as a problem. Instead, they embrace their mistakes.

As we learn from a growth mindset, those who embrace their mistakes and see them as learning opportunities can move companies forward.

Case Study: Google's Experience

Google’s famous study around high-performing teams was called Project Aristotle and the goal was to discover the most vital parts of high-performing teams.

This study identified psychological safety as the number one ingredient in making effective teams.

As a tech giant, Google has spent millions of dollars measuring every part of their employees' lives and their general people operations. For a long time, they believed if you combined the best people, you'd get the best teams because everything else around the people would be fine.

This is a belief that many of us still have, and many companies operate within.

The Head of the Google people's analytics division had said that perhaps it's better to put introverts together or that teams are more effective when everyone is friends outside of the office.

Although they had all these different ideas, the team realized they’d never studied their theories. This realization led to initiating Project Aristotle in 2012. Their goal was to study hundreds of Google teams and determine why some teams stumbled and others soared.

They put together a team of some of the best statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists, and engineers. The researchers began reviewing over half a century of academic studies, journal articles, and books on how teams worked.

They asked several questions:

  1. Are the best teams made up of people who have similar interests?
  2. Did it matter whether everyone was motivated by the same kind of rewards?
  3. Was it the composition of teams inside of Google?
  4. How often did teams socialize outside of the office?
  5. Did they have the same hobbies?
  6. Was their educational background similar?
  7. Was it better for all team members to be outgoing or shy?

They looked at 180 different teams over two years. No matter how they arranged the data, they couldn't find any pattern or consistent evidence to link a team's composition.

They had lots of data, but nothing showed a mix of specific personality types, backgrounds, education, hobbies, or interests.

The groups who ranked among Google's most effective teams had friends who socialized outside of work, and some didn't. Some had strong managers, and some had a horizontal leadership style.

To make it even more confusing, some teams had overlap in membership. One person would be on two teams, yet the teams were radically different in effectiveness.

It was frustrating for the researchers because Google is known to be good with data and finding patterns, but that wasn't happening in this case. As they struggled, one of their lead researchers and her colleagues came across research by psychologists and sociologists surrounding group norms.

Norms are the traditions and behavioural standards we operate by. They're the unwritten rules that govern how we talk, function, and act together. For some teams, their norms were based on consensus making, and for other teams, it was focused on avoiding disagreement.

Google had its own culture, but each team also had its norms.

Team members would behave entirely differently with their team than independently. They would override their typical behaviour and conform to the team's norms. This proved that norms influenced teams profoundly.

After studying for over two years, Project Aristotle researchers concluded that understanding and influencing group norms are the key to improving teams.

If we understand what the group norm is, we can influence it.

Now, the question was, which group norms are best? Which group norms work better than others?

Google identified a dozen behaviours that seemed most important, but one specific norm stood out above the rest.

When the research team started to look at academic papers about psychological safety, it all fell into place.

At first, it seemed that all group norms were utterly different. Where high-performing teams could have very different group norms, they have very different cultures and expectations, but the concept of psychological safety brought it all together.

One of the engineers from one of Google's most accomplished teams told the researchers that his team leader was straightforward, which created a safe space for you to take risks.

Another engineer working for a team on the lower end of the team performance spectrum said that his team leader had poor emotional control. He panicked over minor issues and kept trying to micromanage. He said he would hate to be driving with his manager in the passenger seat because he was scared he'd grab the steering wheel and crash the car.

Within psychology, many researchers have certain key terms that they'll use to describe psychological safety.

One of them is conversational turn-taking. This refers to when there's equal space for speaking, conversation and debate across a team.

Another term is the average social sensitivity. Are we sensitive and aware, empathetic and compassionate to each other? What's the social sensitivity of each member of the team? What's the average social sensitivity?

Harvard Business School professor, Amy Edmondson, defines psychological safety as a "shared belief held by team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking."

It's a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up, having a different idea, and being creative. It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

How do you establish psychological safety?

Establishing psychological safety is messy by nature. It's challenging to implement because it's based on soft skills and emotions.

You can't tell people to take turns during a conversation, be more sensitive with their colleagues, and notice when someone's upset. They have to take the initiative themselves.

The people working at Google are often the same kind of people that take our courses here in Unicorn Labs. They work for startups and become software engineers or technical engineers because they perhaps want to avoid talking about their feelings in the first place.

Naturally, many people are very uncomfortable talking about feelings and feel like it doesn't even belong in the workspace. Project Aristotle taught that when people show up to work, they don't want to have to put on a work face.

They want to be themselves.


The insights from Google’s study aren't new; perhaps that's a good thing. It shows us there's a systematic way for us to create trust within a team to create psychological safety.

If we create psychological safety, we create a learning culture where everyone has an opportunity to learn and grow, which makes your team smarter.

When your team is smarter, they improve. They will innovate and produce better work, leading them to become a higher-performing team.

Listen to episode 2 of the Unicorn Leaders podcast to dive more into guest Craig Handy’s real-life experiences surrounding psychological safety in all kinds of teams.

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