The Magic That’s Missing From Your Leadership Team? Psychological Safety

As CEO, some of your proudest and most frustrating moments are tied to your leadership team. You genuinely care about them. And you know—as research shows—that the success of your company depends largely on their performance.

Yet you sense that your team is not firing on all cylinders. Why? Perhaps you’re missing a critical ingredient: psychological safety.

According to Google’s research in Project Aristotle, psychological safety is by far the most important ingredient in team effectiveness, impacting everything from revenue and retention to a willingness to explore and act on a diverse set of ideas.

Amy Edmonson, who coined the term, defines it as a shared belief held by team members that their team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for mistakes, or for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns.

In a team that’s psychologically safe, people are not worried about how their perspectives might impact their career or relationships. A safe environment enables them to do their best thinking and share their unfettered ideas in service to the company’s mission. Safety really is the magic.

How to build psychological safety

CEOs impact the safety in their leadership teams more than anyone else. These strategies are all within your control:

  • Track team safety. Through surveys or interview-based assessments, find out just how safe people on your team really feel. Leverage your Head of People or an external expert to understand the baseline; then set goals and measure progress as with any other critical business metric. 
  • Provide candid, clear feedback. You think you’re honest and open with your team members. But are you really? Do you tell them often exactly what you’re thinking about their performance, the good and bad? Many CEOs avoid this as they feel it will damage relationships. In reality, giving feedback improves trust by making explicit where people stand with you.
  • Treat team members with respect, consistently.  Even seasoned executives feel safer and perform better when they know they’re valued. Your consistent words and actions should leave no doubt about this—occasional demeaning or harsh behavior is extremely damaging. Also, work with your team to create norms of behavior.
  • Show genuine interest in them as people. Ask how your team members are doing. Inquire about their family and their lives. Spend more than cursory moments on these topics—they need to sense your sincere intent.
  • Cultivate authentic curiosity. Curiosity is a powerful driver of safety, because it helps avoid judgments of people and ideas. Phrases like “Say more about that” and “What are your reasons?” can surface fresh data and perspectives that would otherwise remain hidden.
  • Ensure that every team member engages. Watch for team members who hang back in meetings and draw them out, specifically requesting their input. Actively encourage team members to share tentative thoughts, reducing the barrier of entry into conversations.    
  • Listen with everything you’ve got. Like most humans, executives feel safer when they feel heard and understood. Demonstrate understanding by occasionally recapping key points. Put away distractions and pay full attention. For tips, see our blog on executive presence and listening.
  • Emphasize the importance of diverse views. Encourage and reward authentic disagreement with your strongly held positions. “If you disagree with me, I expect you to tell me.” Remember, there’s no better way to destroy safety than to punish dissent, even subtly. Praise outliers and devils advocates.
  • Foster healthy conflict. Encourage direct disagreement and debate. It’s the only way to tranform diverse inividual views into new, better ideas. CEOs who are uncomfortable with conflict sometimes shut it down, to the detriment of their teams. Insist that people quickly and directly resolve disagreements with each other. 
  • Be conscious of how you respond. Watch your words, facial expressions and body langauge when team members voice concerns.  Avoid critiquing, talking over or dismissing a concern, or showing distaste. Remind yourself and your team it’s more important to find solutions than to blame each other.

Some of the basics of good team leadership also help with safety:

  • Optimize team membership and size. Having the right people on the team, and the wrong people off, is a great starting point for creating safety. The best teams have fewer than 10 members, all of whom excel in their functional areas and collaborate well with each other.
  • Establish clear decision making. A common CEO mistake is to avoid making a decision when the team needs you to, which can lead to extensive spinning of wheels. Other mistakes include making too many decisions yourself, or leaving it vague who will decide, and how.
  • Narrow the team’s agenda. Challenge the team and yourself to remove everything from the team’s agenda that can be handled by individual functions. A Chief of Staff can help, but the CEO is ultimately responsible for how team time is allocated.
  •  Ensure clear roles, goals and accountability. Unclear or overlapping roles can harm team safety because structural conflict can feel like interpersonal conflict. Ensuring well defined structure and accountability removes unnecessary friction.

Finally, it’s not all on you. Your team shares the responsibility for creating and nurturing a safe environment.  The more they support each other, both inside and outside of team meetings, and the more they engage in healthy conflict to resolve issues early, the safer they will feel.

Changing behavior—and culture—isn’t easy. But building a culture of safety on your leadership team is one of the most powerful strategic moves you can make. And while it takes effort, the magic is worth it.

For more on psychological safety, see this three minute video from Amy Edmondson, Creating Psychological Safety at Work, and her longer TEDx talk on building a psychologically safe workplace.