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5 Ways to Increase Psychological Safety in Your Team

Psychological safety improves your team’s performance. Try these actionable exercises.

By Gustavo Razzetti

October 20, 2020

The purpose of promoting psychological safety at work is not just to make people feel safe, but to encourage courageous conversations. When employees feel that their ideas matter and they won’t be punished for being candid, great things can happen.

Psychological safety is the foundation of high-performing teams. It creates a safe space where everyone wants to speak up, be themselves, and experiment. People don’t feel afraid of negative consequences like being criticized, ignored, laughed at, or punished.

The problem with psychological safety is that team members believe that it is their managers’ responsibility to build it. The truth is that the belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking is something that must be created by every team member, not just one person or the ‘boss.’

I’ve written many articles on psychological safety, including one with 9 exercises to promote it in your organization. In this piece, I want to share 5 additional ways to increase your team’s psychological safety. Don’t wait for your manager to do something about it; start practicing these exercises with your colleagues right away.

1. Practice “Just Like Me” to Develop Empathy

Paul Santagata, head of industry at Google, developed this team building activity to encourage vulnerability and deep empathy. Usually when people share their emotions, worries, or ideas, everyone is quick to judge them. We forget that they are humans – just like us.

This exercise is a simple way to promote psychological safety; team members can recite it as a mantra. By repeating a series of phrases – all ending with “just like me” – employees learn to connect with their colleagues in a more humane, empathetic way.

Santagata recommends using the following phrases, even in the most contentious of situations:

  • This person has opinions, perspectives, and beliefs – Just like me.
  • This person has vulnerabilities, anxieties, and hopes – Just like me.
  • This person has friends, family, and maybe even children – Just like me.
  • This person wants to feel competent, respected, and appreciated – Just like me.
  • This person wishes for happiness, peace, and joy – Just like me.

Another play for this exercise is to keep the above phrases visible, reminding people to empathize with others instead of judging them.

For example, I have them present when I’m debriefing the Uncover the Stinky Fish Canvas and people are sharing their anxieties, fears, or what everyone is thinking, but no one wants to talk about. Having the “just like me” statements visible encourages people to practice active listening while everyone shares their stinky fish.   

Real empathy requires honoring other people’s experiences and perspectives. It’s incompatible with shame and judgment, as Brené Brown explains – staying out of judgment requires understanding. As the American professor wrote, “Perspective-taking is listening to the truth as other people experience it and acknowledging it as the truth.” Everyone has opinions, perspectives, and beliefs – just like me.

2. Practice a Blameless Postmortem

Blame is a sign of unhealthy cultures. When something goes wrong, most teams quickly jump into the name, blame, and shame game.

A blameless culture doesn’t mean a lack of accountability. On the contrary, when teams care more about solving the root problem rather than finding the culprit, they become more responsible.

The paradox of mistakes is that when organizations punish people for making errors, people will hide their mistakes. Rather than learning from their colleagues’ errors, team members end up repeating the same mistakes over and over.

That’s why “just cultures“ focus on learning as a whole rather than blaming someone. The belief is mistakes are generally a product of faulty organizational cultures rather than solely a personal issue. In a just culture, the question asked after an incident is, “What went wrong?”

The Blameless Postmortem is an exercise practiced by crafts and vintage items e-commerce website Etsy. Inspired by just cultures, CEO Chad Dickerson wanted to shift the conversation from “Who’s the CEO going to fire?” to learning from mistakes. This practice has helped Etsy employees take more risks and move faster.

As Dickerson told Business Insider, “One of the things I allowed people to do is make mistakes more freely. The best way to learn to ride a bike is to ride the bike and fall down.”

Usually, organizations seek to identify those responsible and punish them. However, this punitive approach doesn’t solve the root cause, but actually perpetuates the flaw. A just culture understands that people function within a system designed by an organization. To prevent errors, the system needs to be improved.

Holding a blameless postmortem is pretty straightforward. It requires shifting the conversation from pointing fingers to finding out what happened and how you can make it better. Google and Atlassian are also advocates of this method.

Detractors assume that blameless postmortems make those who made a mistake feel better—a goal that would probably stifle accountability. However, this exercise aims to promote psychological safety by removing the fear of looking stupid or losing one’s job. Encouraging honest conversations is the only way to prevent the same error from happening again.

Some guidelines to facilitate a blameless postmortem:

Assume good intentions: People usually act based on the information they had at the time. Instead of punishing whoever screwed up, assume they acted with best intentions. Focus on improving performance moving forward, not on judging people.

Don’t react: Blame is usually an emotional reaction. Take your time to ask the right questions and explore what caused the error. Emotional responses are milliseconds faster than cognitive thinking; take a deep breath before you react.

Focus on facts, not perceptions: Have everyone involved review what happened, what their assumptions were, and what they did. Rather than blaming people, encourage the team to reflect on what they would do differently next time. A postmortem requires a step-by-step reflection to adjust every necessary stage, no matter how small.

Identify causes, not culprits: Blaming people eradicates the offender, but not the problem. Move from “who” to “why?” Understanding the root cause might require more effort but will definitely help prevent mistakes from happening again.

Be consistently blameless: This piece of advice comes from Atlassian’s playbook,If one postmortem is blameless and others aren’t, the removal of fear and introduction of more openness won’t work.”

Deal with repeated offenders: Mistakes can happen, but be aware when the same person is making many mistakes that should be addressed at an individual level. Are personal issues or work pressure affecting an employee? Or does this pattern indicate an employee is careless, requiring dramatic action?

Download the Blameless Postmortem Canvas and read the facilitation guide

3. Move from Head Trust to Heart Trust

Psychological safety is a collective belief that a team is a safe place for you to be who you are, ask questions, share your ideas, or challenge the status quo. While trust happens between two people, Psychological Safety is something that the entire team provides. However, both complement each other. If team members don’t trust each other, how can they trust the whole group?

There are two types of trust, according to professor Martha Maznevski: Head Trust and Heart Trust. The former is about trusting the professional, while the latter is about trusting the person.

‘Head Trust’ is the belief that someone has the right skills and expertise to do the right job. ‘Heart Trust’ is the belief that someone will look after the team’s interests, especially when you aren’t there.

To build a successful team requires shifting from head trust to heart trust. Creating the right condition takes time. As Maznevski explains, “Team members may begin with initial “trial” levels of psychological safety, cohesion, and trust, but their experiences together will determine whether the conditions increase or decrease. Full safety, cohesion, and trust can only be built with deep and challenging experiences over time.”

Feeling connected is intrinsically rewarding to our brain. Neuroscience research shows that a lack of connection with others creates pain – not only feeling loneliness, but also symptoms similar to physical pain. Actually, the same brain regions that respond to physical pain are activated when we feel lonely or socially disconnected.

Quick ways to build heart trust:

Reduce physical distance: MIT Professor Thomas Allen discovered that the distance between people’s desks plays a critical role in cohesion. The farther apart workspaces are, the less communication there is between them. Employees seldom communicate with colleagues on separate floors or in different buildings.

Encourage people to share their personal stories: Deep empathy increases understanding, communication, and teamwork. Use the 36 questions to turn strangers into friends exercise – it also helps strengthen existing team relationships.

Arrange (virtual) coffee dates: One-on-one meetings improve personal relationships. At FreshBooks, they randomly assign people from different departments to meet over coffee, increasing bonding and psychological safety.

Share your superpowers and kryptonite: People love this simple exercise that helps us learn our colleagues’ hidden powers and vulnerabilities. It’s also a great reminder that superheroes are invincible when they team up – everyone’s superpowers not only complement each other, but also overcome personal kryptonite.

Make introductions and let people figure it out: Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s job is “to architect the greenhouse.” Rather than being the plant others aspire to be, he creates the conditions for everyone to thrive. Hsieh is famous for encouraging new employees to meet eight people and asking them who else they should meet.

4. Replace blame with curiosity

Perfectionism is a limiting mindset that hinders psychological safety. The desire to always be right creates a judgmental approach that harms trust and interpersonal relationships. Harvard Business School professor Jeff Polzer identified two critical moments that shape team cooperation: the first vulnerability and the first disagreement.

These small moments open the door to two possible paths, as Daniel Coyle explains on The Culture Code:

Are we about appearing strong or about exploring the landscape together?

Are we about winning interactions or about learning together?

In these critical moments, people can become defensive – and blame each other – or become curious and seize the growth opportunity. People can be carried away by the tension or, as Polzer said, “Hey, that’s interesting. Why don’t you agree? I might be wrong, and I’m curious and want to talk about it some more.”

Blame escalates conflict, causing defensiveness and fear, according to research. Curiosity is the antidote to finger-pointing. Rather than assuming that you already know someone else’s position, engage with an open mind by:

  • Using factual, neutral language to state the problem as an observation
  • Removing adjectives or references so people don’t take things personally
  • Asking questions to better understand what the real problem is
  • Engaging others to explore solutions together

Critical moments help set the pattern for future interactions, increasing psychological safety. Replacing blame with curiosity requires shifting from “who” to “why?” Instead of finding a culprit, promote dialogue with an open question.

5. Get Rid of Binary Thinking

Heated discussions are usually driven by the desire to win an argument. When team members see the world through black and white statements, it’s hard to promote psychological safety – people are trying to impose their perspectives rather than listening to different opinions.

Binary thinking makes us see ideas (and people) through a right or wrong, good or bad, smart or stupid lens. The fear of being judged – to fall into one of the negative categories – prevents engagement and promotes silence.

Collaboration and innovation require psychological safety so people can express their ideas, not the ones that the majority – or the boss – will consider “right.” Binary thinking limits your team’s perspective and critical thinking; it’s right for computers, but ineffective for teamwork.

We have a tendency to split things into polarizing categories. The problem is that this promotes an “us versus them” mentality rather than an open one. To overcome binary thinking, your team must learn to embrace the grey zone – the area where reflective dialogue creates real change.

The key to neutralizing dualism is to move from binary to ternary, a threefold relationship. Listing options is a great way to get people used to exploring possibilities rather than getting stuck into discussing what’s right or wrong.

Here’s a simple exercise to get you started:

First, encourage team members to be more aware and recognize when someone is using binary thinking.

Second, practice moving into the grey zone by looking for a third option – the ternary.

Third, list all options – the original two, plus every other third option that team members came up with.

Lastly, evaluate the pros and cons of each possible solution. Choose one by either applying consensus or, even better, the consent method.

Overcoming binary thinking requires shifting the team mindset from “one thing or the other” to a “Yes, and…” approach. Rather than seeing ideas as opposing, team members learn to integrate them and build off everyone’s contributions.

Directional thinking – the antidote to binary thinking – moves the conversation forward by identifying multiple alternatives. Solving problems is not a linear process. Rather than choosing one option or the other, people must become comfortable operating in the grey versus black or white zones.

Creating psychological safety is critical for high-performing teams. Everyone must learn to approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary. Active listening is crucial to understand our colleagues’ experiences and perspectives.

Replacing blame with curiosity is a critical first step. Contrary to popular belief, a blameless culture is more effective in promoting accountability than scapegoating. When people are not afraid of being punished for making mistakes, they take ownership and are more open to learning from their errors.

The above five exercises will help you remove binary thinking and blame, replacing them with empathy, curiosity, and heart trust.

Want to increase psychological safety in your organization?

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