Defining psychological safety. How it affects team performance and supports transformation. How to create it as a team member or senior leader.

Psychological safety improves team performance. It has particular value for teams collaborating on digital projects.

This resource is for:

  • Senior leaders wanting to create the conditions for digital transformation in their charity
  • Team leaders who want to build high performing teams
  • Team members
  • Stakeholders who want to contribute to an open and productive team culture

It covers:

  • What is psychological safety?
  • Its benefits for charities
  • How it can enable digital transformation
  • How you can create psychological safety as a leader or team member

What is psychological safety?


Amy Edmondson coined the term psychological safety. She defines it as ‘a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’.

"Psychological safety: a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking" - Amy Edmondson

So psychological safety means you feel able to be honest. You can share and explore your failures as well as your successes. You feel confident to make decisions. And you know that if something goes wrong, people will treat it as a failed experiment, i.e. something to learn from.

It is not only you that feels this - those around you do too.

When psychological safety is absent

Compare that to what happens when psychological safety is absent.

Most of us have experienced a blame culture in our working or personal lives. In a blame culture, psychological safety is low. People are afraid to make a mistake. They know that when something goes wrong, thoughts will turn to those responsible. In this culture, people become reluctant to make decisions. They exaggerate successes and hide failures.

When psychological safety is present

In a culture of high psychological safety something different happens. People treat undesired outcomes in a different way. There is a shared recognition that undesired outcomes are sometimes inevitable. Thus, the people who contribute to them do not deserve blame.

Instead, 'treat everything as an experiment' becomes a shared belief. In other words, failure is something to be curious about and learn from.

Psychological safety means people feel safe to embrace moderate levels of risk. They:

  • feel more able to work in the open
  • share the true outcomes of their work, warts and all
  • are more honest and reflective
  • ask more questions
  • are more likely to challenge the status quo.

4 benefits for charities

There are many benefits for charities to increasing psychological safety within their teams.

1. Stronger resilience

In a shifting landscape for charities, building resilience helps teams respond. Teams with high psychological safety adapt quicker to change. They show resilience when faced with shifting external factors. They respond to challenges with confidence and positivity.

2. More innovation

Teams with high levels of psychological safety are good at rapid innovation. Pay attention charities building new capability or designing new ways of working!

3. Better wellbeing

A climate of psychological safety makes it easier for team members to be honest and open. This supports individual and team wellbeing.

4. Greater learning and development

Psychological safety encourages effective learning, for teams and for individuals.

Google has proven the positive impact of psychological safety with Project Aristotle. They studied 180 teams to discover the traits that led to high performance. Psychological safety came out as the most reliable indicator of a high-performing team.

How psychological safety enables digital transformation

Psychological safety is particularly important for digital transformation teams within a charity.

Dealing with complexity

Digital transformation is a complex activity. You can’t apply a templated approach and be confident of success. Instead you need to learn and adapt as you go.

And what do we know helps teams get good at learning and adapting...? Psychological safety.

Making digital less scary

Many aspects of digital can be intimidating for others. It’s easy to forget this when you work in a digital role.

The principles, language, and best practice around digital have changed over time. People who work with digital teams are not always up-to-date and can fear getting it wrong.

But we don’t want them to feel scared. We want to welcome them in - we need their ideas, support, and energy. A focus on psychological safety will help achieve these conditions.

Unlocking the benefits of diversity

Building diversity into your digital strategy is a route to success. Diverse experiences, opinions and knowledge will make your programme richer and better informed.

High psychological safety encourages people to share those diverse experiences. It helps them feel safe, supported, and welcomed.

How to create psychological safety as a team member

Anyone in a charity can contribute to building psychological safety. Lets start with suggestions that anyone can use. Then we'll share opportunities for managers and senior leaders.

1. Practise openness

The first thing to do to foster psychological safety is to practise openness and honesty.

You don't need to be making bold revelations every day. Rather, make openness a habit. Be open when something hasn’t worked or when you have made a mistake. If you’re not sure about something, explore your workings in public.

Make this a habit and you begin to normalise this behaviour for your team. As others notice your behaviour they will begin to feel comfortable replicating it.

2. Create space for others

In any room, there will be people who are louder and others who are quieter. The quieter folks have as much to contribute as the louder ones. In fact, Project Aristotle proved this. It found that individuals' extroversion traits had no connection to team effectiveness.

With a little thought, you can help all people in your room feel comfortable contributing.

Sometimes, it’s a case of leaving space. Or instead of making another contribution yourself, bring someone else into the conversation.

If you’re responsible for scheduling a discussion, offer a mixture of ways to contribute. Collect people's ideas before, during, and after the session.

3. Model the supportive challenge

There are ways to challenge the status quo without anyone feeling attacked. Listen, find common ground, then challenge through thoughtful questions. Offer your alternative as a possibility rather than a certainty.

All this lays the groundwork for your team to have productive disagreements. Your team can then work together towards better solutions.

4. Treat everything as an experiment

This is about changing your mindset. Instead of thinking of failure as bad, think of it as another step towards something better.

Talk about failure in these terms and encourage your team to do so. Once you reframe what failure is, you can begin treating everything as an experiment. Under these conditions there’s no need to hide failure as it’s the key to growth and progress.

Read Mindset by Carol Dweck (or watch her Ted Talk) to learn more.

How to create psychological safety as a manager or senior leader

As well as the behaviours above, leaders can practise the following:

1. Adapt your team’s ways of working

As a leader you have the opportunity to build good practice into your team’s ways of working.

Think how you can make the suggestions above part of your team’s operation. Build them into meeting agendas, performance reviews, induction processes and exit interviews.

2. Be consultative

One of the most powerful behaviours you can exhibit as a leader is to listen and consult. You help people feel heard; they then feel valued and safe to share and to challenge. Consulting your colleagues creates psychological safety.

3. Share change early

As a leader you often have access to information about change before your colleagues. People will often sense change is coming, or hear rumours. So as far as you can, share the information you have access to early.

Even if you don’t have the full picture, you will create more psychological safety by sharing what you do know. Also be clear about what you don’t know. This is much better than sitting on information for long periods of time.

4. Show concern

By showing concern for colleagues you are acknowledging them as human beings. Build in time to check in with people in your team and recognise the invisible value in doing so.

5. Consider your leadership style

A study by Mckinsey explored the link between psychological safety and leadership styles. They found consultative and supportive leadership styles to be best at creating psychological safety. 

The study also showed that:

  • Challenging leadership styles can create psychological safety under certain conditions.
  • Authoritative leadership styles have a negative impact.

Further reading

Learn more about psychological safety and how to build it in your charity:

Psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development, from Mckinsey.


Image credit: Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

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