psychological safety part 2 header
Marcie Hopkins, University of Utah Health
Setting the Stage for Psychological Safety: 6 Steps for Leaders
Creating psychological safety for your team is a process that takes time, vulnerability from you as a leader, and collaboration from others. Psychiatrists Jen O’Donohoe and Kristi Kleinschmit share 6 practical next steps for when psychological safety might be a little off on your team.

reating a productive work environment, while also fostering safety and camaraderie, is possibly the most challenging part of a leader’s role. It doesn’t help that most of us were never taught how to create a safe place for people to be themselves. Here are six steps for leaders to begin setting the stage for a psychologically safe team.

How do I know if my team feels psychologically safe?

Here are a few quick ways to gauge if the psychological safety among your team members is a little off:

  • Lack of engagement. If team members aren’t answering questions in meetings or aren’t sharing their perspectives openly, they may not feel safe to do so.
  • Lack of positive—and negative—feedback. Specific feedback is important; it reflects interest and engagement. If all you hear is general feedback like, “things are fine,” that might be cause for concern.
  • Poor engagement survey scores. Engagement data is a moving target. During the pandemic scores have gone up and down. This article can help unpack your scores to see if psychological safety is indeed a problem for your team.

If you see these signs, consider taking the following six steps to improve psychological safety with your team members. Remember, this process can be slow; patience is important. This is an ongoing effort for authentic connection with your team without taking feedback personally.

1. Evaluate and set explicit norms and expectations

We feel engaged and supported in our work when job expectations are clear. Get on the same page with your team by working together to set explicit norms and expectations for performance and workplace behaviors as a team. As a group, clarify your team culture by discussing a few simple questions:

  • What do we expect from each other as coworkers (e.g., response time to after-hours emails, method to acknowledging an assignment, etc.)?
  • What values do we use to describe our team?
  • What do we need from each other to get work done?
  • What do we need in a workplace to feel safe?
  • Do we have an environment that feels safe for people of all races, genders, and backgrounds?

Be open to evaluating “old norms” that might be limiting your team. This is an opportunity to creatively build new ways of working and productivity for your department.

2. Model vulnerability

Psychologically safe teams feel comfortable being vulnerable and are not afraid when a mistake is made. You can show this to your team by owning your own mistakes and being transparent about what you do and do not know.

Normalize “I don’t know.” Be willing to say this and share examples when you made and learned from mistakes. Demonstrate that learning is part of the job.

Learn from the recent past. The pandemic was a crash course in vulnerability as we navigated constant change, staffing concerns, and mistakes. As a team, discuss what was learned during these vulnerable moments with an emphasis on how problems were resolved.

3. Remember everyone has a unique perspective

If you only hear positive feedback, or only hear perspectives that match yours, you probably have a lack of psychological safety on your team.

You can build psychological safety in a few ways:

  • Only ask when you really want to know. Be genuine when seeking perspectives. If you don’t want to know what someone thinks, you shouldn’t ask.
  • Don’t put people on the spot. Sharing an opinion is being vulnerable. If someone isn’t ready to be vulnerable, don’t push them.
  • Always thank people for sharing their opinion. Showing gratitude for feedback helps encourage people to share their opinions more in the future.
  • Avoid being defensive when responding to questions or feedback. A defensive response deters feedback. If you’re feeling defensive a safe response is, “Thanks for letting me know. I need some time to think about that.”

4. Be a transparent communicator

Clear, concise, and consistent communication with all team members reinforces psychological safety. Especially in times of change, be frequent and clear with updates.

Consider the following:

  • Everyone needs an editor. For sensitive or complex topics, ask a peer to review an email or hear your meeting plans before communicating.
  • Be clear that you want feedback; give your team an easy way to ask questions and get clarification. Show gratitude for their input.

5. Create a culture of appreciation

Giving authentic appreciation, and encouraging others to do so, builds psychological safety within a team. Be positive, specific, and generous with feedback. Each time you show gratitude and acknowledgement, it becomes more normalized among the team.

Recognition and appreciation are truly personal. As a leader, take time to make this a priority by understanding individual preferences and making it a regular part of your day.

6. Get to know your team

Creating space and opportunity to connect informally can be a challenge, particularly with some teams working remotely. In addition to understanding their professional goals, make an effort to know what’s important to team members outside of work: hobbies, family, travel, etc. Encourage respectful conversation and sharing among the team.

A key to success is to ask the team how they would like to foster these connections, for example lunch/potlucks, newsletter highlights, online games, activities or service opportunities outside of work. Taking time to really listen makes a big difference in your team dynamics.

Originally published April 2022


Jennifer O’Donohoe

Child and adolescent psychiatrist and assistant professor (clinical), Huntsman Mental Health Institute

Kristi Kleinschmit

Child and adolescent psychiatrist and assistant professor (clinical), Huntsman Mental Health Institute

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