Microlearning — Psychological Safety for high performing teams

Creating psychological safety in teams

Microlearning Class

Psychological Safety describes a climate in which people feel free to express thoughts and feelings, take risks and ask for help without fearing that the consequences of these actions will impact their image or would be held on them in the future.

The term was coined by Harvard researcher Amy Edmodson after studying teams in healthcare. Now the term and its importance has gained more traction after Google revealed the results of their 2 years research “Project Aristotle” where they had the goal of identifying what makes a group people a highly effective team.

When we think of high performing and creative teams we tend to think they are formed by highly qualified individuals who together form the best team possible. Nevertheless, research has demonstrated that it is not about WHO are in the team so much but instead HOW they work together.

Symptoms of unsafe environments

Any group of people set up to collaborate develops visible and unspoken norms that define how they function. This norms are established by recurrent behaviours performed by one or more integrants of the group. Examples of these norms are:

  • Interrupting when someone is speaking is accepted:
  • Asking questions means that you are not good at your job
  • It is okay to invalidate other people’s ideas
  • Only experts can express their opinions

These unspoken norms are a result of toxic behaviours triggered by a work culture based on hierarchy and control where everyone invest their time in “Impressions Management” which means avoiding to be perceived as ignorant, intrusive, incompetent or negative.

The problem is that these “Impressions Management” efforts kill the behaviours necessary to foster a culture of innovation. So people do not ask questions to avoid being perceived as ignorant, the do not admit mistakes by fear of being judged as incompetent, they do not offer new ideas to not be intrusive and they do not challenge the status quo to not be perceived as negative. As you can see, these behaviours prevent teams from experimenting and finding new solutions together.

What to do instead?

It results that most likely it is not about motivating your colleagues, chances are they are full of new ideas and drive to experiment with new things. The crucial thing is eliminating the judging and the fear of making mistakes by creating a space where motivation is welcomed and unleashed with actions. To accomplish that it is necessary to practice and adopt certain norms that will create the Psychological Safety necessary for that to happen:

+ Everybody voice opinions equally: No one dominates the conversation

+ Helping each other is a must: Asking for help is courageous, offering help is caring

+ Dare to propose new ideas: New ideas are welcomed by the team and build on top

+ Addressing difficult issues is a healthy: Failure is seen as a learning path and is welcomed and celebrated. Feedback encouraged is appreciated.

Psychological Safety is particularly necessary in work environments with high uncertainty and interdependency, as is the case in innovation. Managers fear that high levels of Psychological Safety could reduce accountability and quality of results. As Prof. Edmondson tells in her TedTalk, it hasn’t been demonstrated yet that high Psychological Safety leads to slacking off but what is for sure is that high accountability produces high levels of anxiety inhibiting experimentation and risk taking. Depends on you where would you like to play!

Deep Dive Material


Amy Edmonson TedTalk (12min) — Everything you need to know about Psychological Safety from its precursor

Anita Wolley Talk at Google (9min) — How to build smart, productive teams, diversity and collective IQ


Google’s Re:Work (4min) — The 5 key essentials to high performing teams

Jonh Looney Article (12min) — Great examples of no psychological safety at work


This month we will be practicing behaviours to help you create more Psychological Safety within your team. The behaviours will be the following:

Week 0 Self awareness

Week 1  Giving voice to everyone

Weak 2  Creating space for help

Week 3  Daring with new ideas

Week 4  Addressing difficult issues 

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