How Safe Is It In Your Team?

Issue 92

By Annabel Graham, Executive and Team Coach, and Director of Successful Training, Leadership & Coaching Consultancy.

Last month I explored creating a high performance culture, and a key part of that is having trust and safety in the team. So, is your team or business a safe place to be?

What I mean is – is it psychologically safe? Are your employees able to ask for help, admit to a mistake or say they don’t know without fear that they will be received negatively or ridiculed?

Not sure? Let’s look at some signs of an unsafe workplace or team, the four elements of psychological safety, and what you can do to enable it.

What does an unsafe team/workplace look like?

People don’t speak up in meetings or challenge the leader, or another dominant person in the room as they don’t feel safe to do so.

People don’t ask for help, or say they don’t know in fear that their colleagues might think less of them.

People feel excluded or judged, or the odd one out as they aren’t part of the “in crowd”. Yep – just like in school.

People cover up mistakes as there is a blame culture and they daren’t admit to screwing up.

Our fight, flight and freeze response gets triggered easily if we feel unsafe to speak up, take risks, make mistakes, or admit our development needs. This makes us nervous so we go into meetings, worried and waiting for something to happen or a backlash to kick in.

When this happens the amygdala, triggered by perceived threat, works overtime. In contrast, our pre frontal cortex, which governs our higher functioning and logical thought, gets impaired. This means we forget things, hold back, lose confidence and worry. And the more uncertainty or unpredictability there is, the more triggered we become.

Why is having psychological safety so important in teams?

For us to perform well as individuals, and within teams, we need connection. We need to feel we are safe and that we fit in and belong. This is down to the hormone Oxytocin, which enables us to build rapport, and connection.

Positive Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has found that positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broaden our minds. These enable us to be more resourceful emotionally, psychologically and physically. When we feel safe we are more creative, speak out more and have more diversity of thought.

Four aspects of Psychological Safety

Google observed 180 teams teams over five years, and discovered that psychological safety was more important than education or experience in creating high performing teams. For them, four key factors emerged.

1. Inclusion: Safe to be me. I am respected, treated fairly, valued AND included in the team, and allowed to be who I am without putting on a front.

2. Learner: Safe to learn. I am supported to grow. I can innovate, ask questions, experiment, learn from mistakes, and look for new opportunities.

3. Collaborator: Safe to contribute. I can bring my ideas without being ridiculed. I can explore, suggest, and participate without fear of being dismissed or thought less of by others.

4. Challenger: Safe to challenge. I can speak up without punishment. I can challenge the status quo and speak up. I can share my ideas expose problems, invite disagreement and handle conflict constructively.

What can we do to enable this in our teams?

Speak Human to Human: Connect and get to know people. Find out about them, ask great questions, share personal information so people can connect with you.

Take time to check in at every meeting and find out how people are. Empathise and build relationships as much as you can.

Involve everyone. Invite people into the conversation and make sure they are included. Don’t have favourites, or shut people out.

If these are areas you need to take action on, then it’s time for you to step up as a leader. People won’t go first, so set the tone and create that environment, and role model psychologically safe behaviours.

If you want to create a psychologically safe environment in your team or business contact Annabel via LinkedIn,, or visit

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