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How Psychological Safety Builds Team Trust and Helps Your Company Grow

We all know trust is important, especially within a team environment. It enables people to show up as their best selves and work toward a shared vision. It’s the fuel that drives risk-taking, collaboration, and innovation. As Simon Sinek says, “Only when a person trusts an organization will they take personal risk to advance the organization.”

So how do you cultivate something intangible like team trust? Google helped us out by conducting a two-year study (dubbed Project Aristotle) on group effectiveness, essentially providing a blueprint for how to build team trust. The foundation, they discovered, is psychological safety.

What is Psychological Safety?

Amy Edmonson, an organizational behavioral scientist and Harvard Business School professor, has studied psychological safety extensively–particularly among teams. She defines it as, “A shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

In other words, employees don’t fear recrimination as the result of a failed idea or by speaking up. Think of a nurse questioning a doctor’s prescription recommendation, or your new hire sharing a bold idea in his first team meeting. Feeling safe to share and engage with others is an essential component of trust, pushing your organization forward.

Without psychological safety, employees may hide behind their mistakes, stifle other team members, or fail to speak up when they see potential problems. They won’t take on stretch projects or contribute innovative ideas, which could hamstring the growth of your business.

According to The New York Times, researchers on Project Aristotle found that group norms set the stage for psychological safety and group effectiveness. They define group norms as “the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather.”

Meetings are a great place to look at the explicit and implicit rules everyone follows. Do they start on time, or do attendees know they can roll in five minutes late? Is an agenda followed? What about checking your phone–is that accepted or frowned upon? Looking at existing group norms and making intentional changes can create a psychologically safe environment for your team.

Establishing Group Norms

If psychological safety is key to building trust, and group norms provide a vehicle for getting there, let’s look at how you can put this into practice in your organization.

Be clear about your goals

Communicate your company’s vision, mission, and goals explicitly and often. When employees understand what they’re doing and why, trust in their leadership grows. They’re more likely to take risks or point out obstacles because they know where the train is headed.

This is important for the company as a whole, but also on an individual project level. Managers who communicate why each member’s role is important and what they’re working toward will create a greater sense of purpose, belonging, and psychological safety.

Foster equitable communication

Researchers on Project Aristotle found that conversational equality within teams is a big contributor to psychological safety. When everyone gets an opportunity to talk, teams simply perform better. As a leader this means opening the floor to feedback or asking people for specific input to balance out those who dominate the conversation.

Try something like, “Sam, how will this impact the project you’re working on?” or “Liz, what are you hearing from the field?” Then listen to what they say and thank them for their contribution–even if you disagree or don’t think it has merit. Dismissing them in front of the group will teach them it’s not safe to speak up.

Encourage candid communication at all levels

When employees feel empowered to offer feedback or challenge an idea (regardless of status), you can avoid mistakes, course-correct faster, and uncover innovative ideas. If a nurse believes the doctor made a mistake on a patient’s medication dosage but is afraid to question him, the consequences could be… pretty bad.

You’re probably not facing life or death situations, but think about your group norms around status and authority. No single person has all the answers, and people on the front lines often have valuable input. Ask subordinates, “What am I missing? What would you do differently?” Inviting candid feedback, especially from people at lower levels, contributes to a psychologically safe culture.

Create judgment-free brainstorms

As social creatures, we want to belong. This makes us afraid of saying something stupid, losing respect, or being judged. But good ideas usually emerge after a string of really bad ones (Hot air balloon stunt? Safari-themed company sweatshirts?).

In judgment-free brainstorming, all ideas are welcome–however ridiculous. Discussion and evaluation can (and should!) happen at a later stage, but when you remove the threat of judgment from the creative process, employees feel protected against rejection and free to take risks.

Normalize mistakes

When employees are empowered to try something that might not work, they learn that mistakes, risk, and failure are an acceptable part of the process. How different would life look without Henry Ford’s Model T or Steve Jobs’ Mac?

Start each meeting by asking someone to share a mistake they made or a risk they took, using it as an opportunity to learn and problem-solve as a group. You can even celebrate a failed idea as something that was worth trying. The more you talk about mistakes in a constructive and positive way, the more you normalize them and remove their threat.

“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” –George Bernard Shaw

Bring your whole self to work

When you take off your “boss” mask and share something personal, it gives everyone else permission to be human. If you’re sad or frustrated about life events, say something. If you’re nervous about a big project roll-out, express those fears. It’s not about being “fearless,” it’s about moving forward in the face of fear and demonstrating what that looks like.

Psychological safety, modeled and reinforced through intentional group norms, builds team trust. Instead of worrying about screwing up, saying the wrong thing, or being punished, employees will be open to learning and stretching themselves. They are also likely to stay with your company longer. When they don’t fear losing their job, they show up as their best selves and take bigger risks… which helps your organization grow.

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