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Psychological Safety Matters More than Anything Else

It’s not the individual but the team that is the driver of sustained and long-term success in management and business. The ‘healthier’ the people and their relationships, the better the chances for success. The absence of illness does not suggest you are healthy, the same for a team. There is often the assumption that everything is fine with us in the team. Assumption is the mother of all cock-ups!

Conclusive evidence of numerous empirical studies to date confirmed that team leaders who create psychological safety and hold their team members accountable for excellence are the highest performers. Google with its 51,000 employees initiated an exhaustive research project recently, in and outside of Google, on what makes the ‘perfect team’? To their surprise, they learned that psychological safety, more than anything else, was the most critical trait making a team work well and successful.

Psychological Safety

Psychological safety breeds ‘healthy’ people and ‘healthy’ relationships. It is a sense of confidence that the team will listen and not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up. It is a team climate characterized by high interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves. A place that is safe for saying what you feel and want to say – taking the interpersonal risk.

“The As If” Syndrome

Unfortunately psychological safety in groups is more the exception than the rule. What is more the rule is what is called the ‘As If’ syndrome. That is, people act ‘As If’ they mean what they say and say what they mean. The cause is fear and corporate obedience. Grown-ups behaving like children in the face of authority, not like adults at all. They act as if being adult to play it safe.


At Google people are now taught not to put on a “work face” when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel “psychologically safe”, we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are problematic. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Work is more than just labour.

Personality Differences

Understanding how we differ and how to treat each other differently is required to build trust, the corner stone of psychological safety. The DISC personality model is very useful. Behaviours that create psychological safety and emotional conversations are related. These conversational turn-taking and empathy are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond. And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else. In fact, they sometimes matter more. We all seek safety in our relationships that are important to us to express our feelings, fears and hopes – differently. The question is, do you enable team members to do that?

Team Norms

The best way to maintain psychological safety is with behavioural norms. Norms are behaviour patterns, “ways of acting”, standards, unwritten rules that govern how we function when we are together. Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound. Team members may behave in certain ways as individuals – they may chafe against authority or prefer working independentlybut when they gather, the group’s norms typically override individual tendencies and encourage deference to the team. In fact, norms are behavioural contracts members enter into with each other and can only be changed with team consensus. They are managed and maintained with peer pressure within the team, an ongoing process. Norms are a psychological reality of any group of people.