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Why high performing teams need psychological safety

You’re chatting to a member of your team. During the conversation, you notice they’ve got spinach in their teeth. What do you do? Do you mention it immediately? Or keep quiet? Seems pretty insignificant but what you decide can tell you a lot about your culture. If you’ve created an environment where people are open and honest with each other, you won’t hesitate to tell them.  If you haven’t, you need to work on psychological safety.

Why does this matter? Because it’s the foundation of high-performing teams. Without psychological safety, there’s no vulnerability. And without vulnerability, there’s no trust. Numerous studies have demonstrated beyond doubt that psychological safety enables teams to take risks, think creatively and speak up when they don’t agree. Which are precisely the behaviours you want if you’re looking to scale-up fast and pull ahead of your competition.  

Enables creativity and strategic thinking

Businesses often struggle to create psychological safety.  It isn’t common because it doesn’t come naturally.  It has to be deliberately learned.  In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Laura Delizonna gives some fascinating evolutionary context.  She describes how humans are programmed to react more strongly to negativity – the so-called ‘negativity bias’.  

This instinct was essential for survival, triggering the most primitive part of the human brain, the amygdala, into a fight or flight response after a threat.  Unfortunately, the amygdala can’t differentiate between a real or imagined threat. So negative feedback from your boss can instantly trigger the same, adrenalised response. It’s hard-wired into us.  Your boss may say nine positive things plus one negative and your brain obsesses about the negative point.

    It hampers creativity and the ability to think strategically – two crucial traits of high performing teams.  It can also provoke defensiveness and an adversarial reaction to conflict. To counteract it, you need all members of the team to see conflict as a good thing.  Something to approach collaboratively. And they need to be encouraged to communicate openly and honestly.

    All of this has to be learned through greater self-awareness and practice.  It’s not going to happen overnight.  It’s why I coach teams through my ‘stinky fish’ exercise on a quarterly or half-yearly basis.  What are people thinking and not saying?  How do we get these things out in the open?  Because without this, ‘fake harmony’ seeps in along with avoidance of conflict.  Someone says something in a meeting, everyone rolls their eyes, and nobody challenges it.  This is what you must avoid.   

    Builds professional respect

    Psychological safety doesn’t mean everyone holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’.  Far from it!  You may not even like each other that much. However, there does need to be professional respect.   

    Former England rugby coach, Clive Woodward, talks about this in his book ‘How to win’. High performing team members admire each other’s strengths, particularly when they’re different from their own.  And when there’s a recognition of each person’s unique contribution. Studies have looked at couples who’ve stayed married for a long time.  One of the things they noticed was that each saw particular strengths in their partner that they didn’t see themselves.  They respected each other’s differences.

    Without psychological safety, people aren’t able to be vulnerable.  Sometimes it’s important to admit you’ve made a mistake and feel able to do this without fear of judgement. In my experience, people respect this and think more highly of you afterwards.  The bonds of trust are strengthened.  

    Encourages ‘radical candour’

    Respect is linked to ‘radical candour’, a phrase coined by Liz Scott in her best-selling book of the same name.  In cultures with psychological safety, there’s a strong feeling that every person is supported to be the best version of themselves they can be – even if this involves difficult conversations. 

    To be truly effective, people need to feel they’re not going to be punished or judged.  Otherwise, there will be no performance improvement.  It’s like a flywheel that will only start spinning if the environment allows it. 

    Going back to the spinach analogy.  By telling someone they have something potentially embarrassing in their appearance, you’re thinking of their feelings above your own.  As Kim Scott says in her book, this is about being in service of the other person – I really like that description.  The feedback is about them, not you. Unfortunately, we’re conditioned from childhood to think, ‘If I have nothing nice to say, I’ll say nothing’.  This conditioning needs to be challenged and overcome. 

    To practice radical candour, I often use the ‘Stop, Start, Continue’ exercise with Executive teams.  Each person has a sheet of paper with their name at the top and split into three sections.  They pass it to the left and people write something down for each of the three categories.  ‘Stop’ – something that’s undermining your ability to be the best you can be.  ‘Start’ – suggestions for things that will make a more significant contribution to the team and ‘Continue’ – the good stuff to carry on with. 

    This goes around the table and eventually comes back to the original person. Now they have a development plan, and peer review all rolled into one. I ask if anyone’s prepared to share what they’ve written down by giving that feedback face-to-face. This builds trust, candour and psychological safety.  I also suggest that each person takes their sheet back to their functional team and talks it through with them.  There’s no better way of demonstrating vulnerability.  And it also helps your team to help you.  Hugely valuable.

    Enables open and honest feedback

    I was working with a really talented Executive team last week but noticed they were pretty soft with each other.  It was evidently difficult for them to say what they really thought.  It wasn’t that the team lacked psychological safety but some were definitely more comfortable with it than others. There’s always a spectrum and the mix of personalities makes a big difference.  Often, if there’s an introvert in the team, I’m impressed by their ability to say just one thing that cuts through the noise.  It’s how they’re wired. Introversion seems to go hand-in-hand with the ability to be direct and speak up with the brutal facts.  

    This team were just being too polite with each other.  And I told them this! They needed to work on being more direct. This wasn’t about hurting people’s feelings.  But as a third party observer, I could see that just when we were getting deeper into the nub of a problem, someone would jump in because they could see the conversation was uncomfortable. Usually, with a joke that was an attempt to diffuse the situation.  Immediately, the opportunity for direct feedback was lost.  I told them, don’t use humour.  Stop being polite.  Be pointed and specific about the things this person is doing or not doing that would drive an improvement in performance in the team. Make sure your feedback is fact-based and unemotional. 

    Here’s a great tip about feedback.  If you’re finding it hard to give, tell the person before you give it.  Say to them, ‘I need to give you some feedback, and I’m finding it difficult’.  In my experience, this builds empathy – the other person will often say, ‘Go ahead.  I can take it’.  If they aren’t ready to hear it though, you need to back off. Don’t carry on regardless.  Wait until the time is right.  And maybe afterwards you can ask them how they felt it went.  Could you have handled it differently?  Ask them to coach you.  All of this builds vulnerability-based trust.  

    Overcomes cultural inhibitions

    There’s no doubt that the British find it harder to be direct than other nationalities, and this can affect psychological safety.  We tend to dance around a problematic topic instead of hitting it head-on.  If you introduced a Dutch, South African or Polish person to your team, you’d probably be astonished by their black and white approach.  You may even mistake it for rudeness.  But once you’ve seen the power of direct, transparent communication, you’ll want to work on changing the way you do things.

    I thrive in environments where people are able to speak their minds without fear of judgement.  At Rackspace and Peer 1, new recruits would turn up and tell us they couldn’t believe that we talked to each other like this.  It took their breath away.  After a while, it becomes the norm. As your culture shifts along the spectrum towards being open and transparent, you’ll see how important it is to maintain this approach. And you do this by recruiting new people who are comfortable in this type of environment.

    It’s possible to measure coachability, and you can quickly work out if new recruits can take direct feedback. In the past, I’ve asked male candidates, ‘Talk me through your decision to not shave today’ or ‘Tell me why you’ve worn a shirt that doesn’t fit’. Do they bristle when I say this?  Or get defensive?  You can tell so much from instinctive reactions. I also get them to give me feedback on aspects of the recruitment process.  Direct people will tell you straight away what they think hasn’t worked so well.   

    Removes blame

    The tendency to blame is another characteristic that’s hard-wired into humans from an early age.   I’ve got two daughters aged 6 and 4.  Whenever they’ve made a mess, they’ll instantly blame the other.  It’s a survival thing.  If I throw my sister to the lions, I get to live another day.

    Clive Woodward talks about blame and negativity in the dressing room. If the team was 15:0 down at half time, he needed people to be positive enough to go back out and turn it around.  And yet he observed that some team members couldn’t help but point the finger at others.  They struggled to overcome their default response of, ‘It’s not my fault, it’s yours’.

    To build high performing teams, companies need to get past this.  When psychological safety is strong, blame gets replaced by curiosity. Why are we where we are?  Did something go wrong in the process?  What’s the root cause.  And, as a result, they learn and grow together. 

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    Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his new book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here

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