Building Your Team’s Safety Ecosystem
Five experiments for establishing team psychological safety.
Odds are you’ve heard the term “psychological safety” before and know it’s an important component of a functioning team. But what exactly is it? Why is it so important? What’s the relationship between psychological safety and organizational change? And most critical: What can teams try to boost low (or nonexistent) psychological safety?
This article discusses some of the connections between psychological safety and organizational structure, and presents five experiments teams can try when psychological safety and space for change are hard to find.
A Primer on Psychological Safety
Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School and the author of The Fearless Organization, defines psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” This shared belief is invisible, but it has tangible implications. When we feel psychologically safe, our brains can devote more energy towards thoughtful action, social interaction, creative problem-solving, and other higher-order thinking. When team members know they won’t be punished for trying and “failing,” they’re more likely to test new things, thereby continuously evolving their team’s OS.
Conversely, in the absence of psychological safety, we become risk-averse; we default to what we know (even if it doesn’t work very well) or perceive differences as outsize threats. Flooded with fight-or-flight hormones, our ability to concentrate, collaborate, and communicate plummets. This powerful cycle can catch groups in a repetitive and sticky fear loop that makes teamwork extremely difficult.
What’s Org Design Got to Do With It?
Because psychological safety is something we perceive internally (and often subconsciously), many of us assume it’s also created and maintained internally. The reality is more nuanced: Psychological safety is experienced internally but produced by conditions both internal and external.
In The Ready’s work helping teams evolve their ways of working, we understand psychological safety to be an emergent property of a responsive and adaptive organizational structure. This means psychological safety is both a by-product and an input. Think of it as oxygen in a healthy forest: it is generated symbiotically between the trees, soil, sunlight, and water — and it enables the creatures within the forest to thrive. The generation and use of oxygen becomes a positive cycle benefiting the ecosystem, just like the generation and use of psychological safety helps an organization adapt and grow.
When an organization’s OS distributes responsibility, makes transparent communication a default, provides space for healthy conflict, and incentivizes new and creative ways of working, it helps generate psychological safety for its members. In turn, members use that psychological safety to take positive risks to help improve the OS. But when an OS is stamped with secrecy and command-and-control structures, it will struggle to nourish a sense of psychological safety; the oxygen won’t be there to try new things and improve the situation.
To complicate matters further, we all experience safety and un-safety through our social location (gender, race, income, and other identities we claim or have inscribed upon us) and previous experiences. In many cases, safety is correlated with privilege. Even if you work inside of a change-averse OS, early and repeated experiences of safety will scaffold you to believe that risks in service of growth are manageable and “safe-to-try.” (Witness the prevalence and visibility of white men in thought leadership about innovation in fields like government, academia, and business.) If, however, more social violence is directed at you or your community, or if you’re confronting stressors elsewhere in your life, you may be more impacted by a system’s lack of psychological safety. This makes “safe-to-try” a further stretch for many people and organizations.
The good news: Neither our organizations nor our personal experiences of safety are fixed in stone. We can make moves towards more participatory and empowered organizations—and we can learn to feel safer as we take thoughtful and intelligent risks. The key is to start small and move at the speed of trust.
Five Ways to Start Small
At The Ready, we help clients spark and steer organizational transformation. One way we start is by asking teams: “What small change(s) to your current practices feel safe-to-try?” Then, we help them give it a whirl. Over time, this cycle of doing-learning-tweaking becomes a powerful evolutionary engine — and it starts with small moves that feel safe-to-try.
Here are five experiments you can try today to generate more psychological safety and safe-to-try in your team.
1. Create predictability with micro-rhythms
Our brains find routine and ritual soothing. When we’re scared or stressed, moments of predictability become especially important. Micro-rhythms are low-lift moves your team can use to foster reliability and togetherness. Think of them as moments of purposeful coordinated activity: repeatable, small-group activities that both get something done and produce a shared sense of direction and meaning.
Micro-rhythms require no preparation and can be integrated into existing work routines. Some great examples are:
- Take five minutes at the end of each meeting to document next steps (reduces multitasking during meetings and makes it easier for different learning styles to track what’s going on);
- Include a 15-minute, small-group breakout during your weekly team meeting (creates space for clarifying questions and for quieter team members to process);
- Identify daily or weekly meetings as camera-off and invite each other to take these calls while walking or doing housework (reduces sitting stress and allows kinesthetic learners to concentrate more).
Try this: Embed a low-demand micro-rhythm into your existing daily or weekly work. Offer your crew the list above and ask which idea seems safe-to-try. Scope the experiment for 1–2 weeks and check in with the group to explore how it’s going and what people are noticing.
2. Locate experiments in dyads or triads
Trust is most easily felt and built in pairs or small groups. In a system where overall psychological safety is low, there are often still pockets of security between colleagues. Leverage the strength of these pre-existing relationships and start experiment design and execution there. Over time, this will create system-wide effects. (For more on this, check out Holding Change.)
This experiment locates dialogue about new ways of working, tension-mapping, and experiment design in pairs and groups. The focus is not on making a decision. Rather, the experiment invites participants into a space where they can consider change from a pocket of trust.
Try this: Propose running voluntary parallel experiments around ways of working and locate the dialogue in small groups using these steps:
- Invite interested members to identify the pairs/small groups where they feel that they do their best work. Pairs/small groups should be collaborators on at least one project, so they can implement their experiment right away. (With very low psychological safety, consider using a survey or anonymous matching tool.)
- Organize participants into their pairs/small groups. Invite them to reflect on tensions in their shared work and practices/experiments they could imagine trying.
- Invite all groups to share the practices they identified. Some groups will be ready to pilot a change; if this is the case, encourage them to proceed and share their learning with the group. (By sharing their learning and positive risk-taking, “early adopters” will help the rest of the group build comfort.)
- To close the experiment, ask participants to share what it was like to consider change from within their small group versus a larger team or function. As a group, notice and name any new things that became possible through this experiment. The more you repeat this experiment, the more new things will become possible.
3. Provide lightweight context around key decisions
When we don’t feel safe, our brains default to seeing threats everywhere. Instead of giving each other the benefit of the doubt (“I’m sure there’s a valid reason I wasn’t invited to the meeting”), we assume the worst (“They’re conspiring against me!”). Organizational cultures filled with backdoor dealings and uneven access to information fuel this fire.
Transparent communication helps us start to trust one another. This experiment introduces a framework for practicing explicit and vulnerable communication. Even if you think your colleagues trust you, try it out; you might be surprised about the dialogue it unlocks.
Try this: When making a decision your colleagues might see or be impacted by, share your thought process on Slack for 2–3 weeks using some of the following prompts:
- Other options I weighed were…
- The trade-off I made was…
- I consulted with…
- From my perspective, this decision “works” if it..
- One thing I’m not sure about is…
You might be tempted to instead share this context in a meeting — but this experiment’s strength comes from the asynchronous nature of the communication. By modeling vulnerability and transparency, you signal to your team that it’s safe to do this in a visible forum. After 2–3 weeks, reflect (again, publicly) with your team and ask: “What did this practice unlock for us? How did it change how we viewed one another’s choices?”
4. Crowdsource a project’s task list
Exercising autonomy is strongly correlated to feeling safe. The classic managerial move of dividing and assigning work often undermines autonomy, erodes psychological safety, and makes workers hesitant to step forward with new ideas. Conversely, baking autonomy into a team’s processes will build safety, leading to more empowerment, creativity, and skill-building.
This experiment guides your team through collaborating on the “how” of a project, with the goal of increasing the felt experience of autonomy. Because this approach can feel vulnerable to those used to having work assigned, the experiment is scaffolded for different degrees of comfort.
Try this: Look at your work in progress and select a project that’s elicited interest. (2.0 move: Ask the team which project is suffering from a lack of engagement.) Propose the team collaboratively plan the key outcomes and approaches for the next phase of work, with the goal of harvesting everyone’s creativity and maximizing autonomy. If your crew appreciates time to percolate, introduce the questions and agenda below asynchronously. If your crew likes to work on the fly, jump into a live discussion.
- “From your perspective, what work needs to be done to move this project forward?” (Think beyond roles. Focus instead on tasks to complete, conversations to have, assets to ship, problems to solve, etc.)
- “Selecting 2–3 tasks from the list above, how would you suggest approaching this task? What steps would you take? Is there anything you would avoid doing?”
- “Of the work on this list, what would you most enjoy doing? What would stretch your current skills? Is there anything you’d like to collaborate on with a colleague?”
- “Of the work on this list, what would you least enjoy doing? Are these tasks truly necessary?”
As trends emerge, divide up the work accordingly. (2.0 move: Look at the work no one wants. Crowdsource ideas for eliminating, reducing, outsourcing, or automating this work.) At the end, spend five minutes as a group discussing questions like: “What was it like to plan collaboratively? How was that different from our usual approach? What could we improve next time?”
5. Take one thing off your list
When we feel overwhelmed, many of us reflexively say “No” to anything new (even if the new thing might help us). Taking just one thing off our plates can do a lot to relieve overwhelm and open up cognitive space. It is a small yet powerful experience of autonomy, and it helps us feel safer and more in control.
Try this: Invite each member of your team to identify two things (updating person A, editing document B, attending meeting 123) they’d like to stop doing. Offer the invitation collectively and transparently. If you hold formal power or have influence on your team, consider kicking things off and killing two pieces of work clogging your own bandwidth. Then, indicate what you intend to prioritize with your new space and time. Scope the experiment for 1–2 weeks and check in with the group periodically to explore how it’s going and what people are noticing.
Strengthening Safety Loops
In the world of transformation and organizational design, ongoing reflection and sensemaking is critical. When exploring psychological safety, it’s even more important to appreciate what we are achieving — because noticing and naming small steps in the right direction helps build our awareness of the safety we do feel, which increases our stamina for further growth.
As you play with the experiments above, make sure you bake in micro-rhythms of noticing and naming. The group’s noticed-and-named progress will soon produce a safety loop: a counterweight to the fear loop of threat, inertia, and stuck-ness. The more your team stays and plays in their safety loop, the stronger it gets—and the more you will start to unlock possibilities for greater change and transformation.
The Ready is an organizational design and transformation partner that helps you discover a better way of working. We work with some of the world’s largest, oldest, and most inspiring organizations to help them remove bureaucracy and adapt to the complex world in which we all live. Learn more by subscribing to our Brave New Work podcast and Brave New Work Weekly newsletter, checking out our book, or reaching out to have a conversation about how we can help your organization evolve ways of working better suited to your current reality.
This article was made a whole lot better thanks to editing by Zoe Donaldson.