Psychological Safety


The Zattatat Gang is a successful team because of their psychological safety!
The secret ingredient to a successful team

Psychological Safety

Yes, research has shown that psychological safety is a key determiner of success for teams of all sizes and for all types of endeavors – from business to government to nonprofit. And yes, you as a small business owner need to think about the team environment you’re creating whether you have actual employees or just contractors.

So what is psychological safety?

The term was first coined by then-researcher (now Harvard Business School Professor) Amy Edmunson in a 1999 paper. You can read more about it by reading the original text, but basically the idea is that teams are more successful when people on the teams feel comfortable doing a few key things:

Ask Questions

Rhonda asking a question
Could you explain that last slide again?

On some teams, people are embarrassed to admit when they don’t know something. Sometimes managers can think that this is a positive thing, because it’s encouraging high standards or motivating people to learn on their own time whatever they don’t know…. but in reality, it’s usually just encouraging people to pretend they know what’s going on, when in fact they don’t.

Another form this can take: if team members don’t feel some freedom to question each other, established procedures, and/or people in positions of authority, that leads to everyone just “smiling and nodding,” and not contributing differing opinions or raising important points which could in fact lead to beneficial changes in procedures (such as preventing major legal or safety disasters on the extreme end, or just saving a bit of time or money in more typical scenarios.)

Admit Mistakes

Princess Capybara admitting a mistake, a key to team psychological safety.
Sometimes you gotta do it.

This is again a bit counterintuitive for some new managers. Some managers assume that by berating employees for making mistakes, they’re motivating people to make fewer mistakes… but, in reality, it’s usually just incentivizing people to lie and try to cover up their mistakes.

The downside of that, of course, is that instead of fixing the mistake, learning from it, and moving on, the team is now totally in the dark about what happened and has learned nothing that could help prevent similar mistakes in the future. Worse, if the person who made the mistake is truly checked out, they might not even care about fixing the mistake and might simply try to cover it up until they leave the team. In the long run this is not in your best interest as the business owner!


Gary and Process Capybara disagreeing, an important aspect of psychological safety.
Discussions can get heated!

Another key component of psychological safety is people feeling safe disagreeing with each other, while still acknowledging that everyone is in fact still on the same team. The organization can only benefit from hearing eveyone’s perspectives when all team members feel safe to express their opinions without fearing that they’ll be seen as traitors to the team.

Weekly Challenge: 

Do some reflecting, and think about whether you as a team leader or business owner have been fostering a culture of psychological safety on the team that you lead. If not, challenge yourself to make some changes and improve the institutional culture you’re creating!

Ps. If you want to read more about psychological safety from the original researcher, check out this more recent article from Harvard Business Review.

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