When Google managers observed 180 of their teams they were shocked to learn that psychological safety was a key determinant of success. Google’s Project Aristotle shone the spotlight on the importance that psychological safety brings to an organisation. This proved more significant a factor than the collective background, experience or education of the team members!

July, 2014 was a warm summers day. The glow from the sun reflected off the freshly cut lime green grass, every blade looking like it had been attended to individually. I was awash with adrenaline mixed with a tonic of nervous excitement. The magnitude of the opportunity started to kick in. It was my first day as a neophyte Sport Psychologist entering the secretive world of high performance sport.
The bubble of enthusiasm burst quickly. Here I was in what many would consider a dream job rubbing shoulders with people worth more in monetary value than my mortgage. However I was questioning my profession, knowledge, and own self-worth.
A term with which I quickly became accustomed was ‘cut throat’, a reference made by other staff towards the Academy Manager (AM). A man who thrived by leading through fear, paralysing potential and crushing self-worth.

What is psychological safety?

Amy Edmonson, a Harvard Professor who has pioneered research in the area, defines psychological safety as:

a belief that the context is safe for interpersonal risk taking

In a nutshell, psychological safety allows people to have a voice, offer their own insights and opinions whilst feeling safe to take sensible risks without fear of retaliation.
People want to feel valued.

What are the adverse affects of a culture devoid of psychological safety?

I remember the lead physiotherapist being shutdown and humiliated. Looking demoralised and alienated, he was unwilling to share further knowledge or insights. Science has shown the pain centre of the brain becomes activated under such distressing circumstances.
Other members of staff activated their internal mechanism of self-preservation shifting towards a stance of ‘polite withholding’, saying what they believed the AM wanted to hear.
Potentially it could be the biggest killer of team performance as the vast array of expertise, ideas and insights that are available in the room are overlooked in favour of a dangerously narrow perspective.

Four things Leaders can do to build psychological safety:


  1. Inclusion safety – Human beings have an innate need for acceptance so when people join the team/organisation it is imperative to make them feel part of the shared identity.
  2. Learner Safety – Leaders can ensure members of the team feel safe to provide input, ask questions within meetings, and have the freedom to make mistakes so long as they consistently learn as a result. A climate of confident and resilient individuals start to evolve.
  3. Contributor Safety – It is always good to reflect as a Leader and ask yourself how much autonomy do I truly give to my team? Are you someone who only respects the insights and ideas of the highly educated or do you acknowledge that key insights can come from the most unlikely people? As a Leader we must encourage others to contribute to the team when the time is right.
  4. Challenger Safety – Leaders have an obligation to create a climate of openness and honesty in which members of the team/organisation feel confident to express their opinions even if they oppose those in positions of power.
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