How to Lead Teams Toward Psychological Safety

An environment full of blame, expected perfectionism, and constant layoffs is the kryptonite to creating a vibrant, innovative, and productive workplace. For more creativity, collaboration, and inclusion, you’ll need psychological safety.

Rachel Ayotte — November 13, 2023

Psychological safety refers to a work environment where individuals feel comfortable and secure expressing their thoughts, ideas, and concerns, and even making mistakes without fear of negative consequences or judgment. While many companies believe they have a psychologically safe workplace — their company slogans and mission statements say as much — very few actually have the right tools and foundations set in place to create a true psychologically safe environment.

An environment full of blame, expected perfectionism, constant layoffs, and harsh penalties is the kryptonite to creating a vibrant, innovative, and productive workplace. For more creativity, collaboration, and inclusion, you’ll want to start here.

5 ways to create a psychologically safe work environment 

1. Embrace new workstyles

Whether people like it or not, the adoption of remote or hybrid work is here to stay — in fact, according to recent research, a majority of employees say that flexible working is more important than one’s salary or other benefits. 

Here’s why: According to authors of Workstyle, Lizzie Penny and Alex Hirst, who was a recent guest on Blinkist’s webinar, Building a Culture Where Everyone Thrives, flexible workstyles allow employees to define their own work schedules and ways of working. This fosters better employee well-being and productivity, and even creates a more diverse and inclusive environment. 

The ability to fit work into your life — and not the other way around — allows employees to spend more time investing in things that bring them happiness, enhance their mental health, and bolster their overall well-being.

How to introduce a new workstyle:

  • Do some research: Encourage team members to document when and where they’re most productive, or even directly ask about their workstyle preferences
  • Get the right tools: Use digital-first solutions for collaboration like Slack or Google Workspace.
  • Lean on your team: Trust fellow team members to deliver and communicate as they say they will. And if they don’t, follow up and create processes of accountability.
  • Change your KPIs: Measure an employee’s value by the outcomes they produce, not by the hours they spend at their desk


2. Encourage failure

When it comes to building a psychologically safe and therefore innovative, creative, and productive workforce, success isn’t everything. In fact, failure is equally as important.

“Leaner safety,” a term coined by the author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, Timothy R. Clark, is all about minimizing the feeling that being wrong is bad and minimizing the expectation that feedback only happens as punishment. By doing so, employees feel confident expressing ideas, asking questions, and taking risks — all essential components of a vibrant, productive, and safe work environment.

To cultivate this, try asking yourself questions like:

  • Do we have designated times for team brainstorming?
  • Do we punish or reward failure?
  • How does our team incentivize or discourage risk-taking?
  • What examples of risk-taking can we promote within our team to encourage others?
  • How do our team leaders embrace failure in their own lives?


3. Do sweat the “small” stuff

While creating and maintaining psychological safety does involve some major steps, it’s equally important not to overlook the “small” stuff — because, in reality, the small stuff really isn’t that small at all:

Be conscientious of power dynamics: Make a point to go to employees’ desks instead of asking them to come to your office.

Use the right body language: Make eye contact and use active listening skills like noticing non-verbal cues and asking open-ended questions.

Offer varied responsibilities: Allocate responsibilities so every employee gets a chance to take on a leadership role (i.e., for regular meetings, create a rotating schedule so that a different person leads each time).

Be a consistent leader: Do your best to match your words to your actions.

Put the right resources in place: Establish and distribute the code of conduct, ways of work, employee resource group information, etc.

Use inclusive language: Be sure to use the right gender identity pronouns and be sensitive to specific language usage.


4. Fix the pay gap

According to research outlined by SHRM, Black men earn 87 cents for every dollar a white man earns, while Hispanic workers earn 91 cents for every dollar earned by white men. And women earn an average of 17% less than men.

This pay gap — which notoriously underpays diverse groups — can continue to make employees feel disrespected and unsafe in a work environment. On the contrary, companies that are aware of such trends, and make strides to provide equal pay, will not only make employees feel respected and seen, but it will also give them better economic access to things like mental health and wellness tools, child care, safe and affordable housing, and medical resources.

While organizational executives may be the ones with final say on salary for some organizations, hiring managers or team leads can also advocate for fair pay by:

Researching salary data: Do some digging on industry standards using sites like Glassdoor to figure out your reports’ average industry pay ranges.

Highlighting team achievements: Encourage your employees or team members to document their accomplishments. Then, deliver that information higher up the food chain to advocate for better or more transparent pay.

Requesting regular updates from higher-ups: If transparent and fair pay is being left by the wayside at your organization, request regular meetings or check-ins with more senior-level employees to discuss the benefits of fair compensation. 

5. Encourage rest 

How can companies incorporate rest into the workplace? Luckily for team leaders, encouraging rest in the workplace doesn’t require installing office sleep pods or offering dedicated workplace spaces for napping.

Valuing rest, according to Brené Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection, is just as important as valuing hard work. To do so, leaders should implement a few simple practices like:

  • Offering more PTO, wellbeing days, or breaks at holidays 
  • Encouraging employees to “log off” early if their work is complete 
  • Offering more prolonged time off, such as sabbaticals
  • Keeping tabs on employee’s bandwidth with regular wellbeing check-ins
  • Getting comfortable with extending deadlines
  • Leading by example by taking breaks throughout the day

Creating a psychologically safe workplace — for everyone

Creating psychological safety in the workplace requires an ongoing commitment and a willingness to learn and adapt. But with the right tools and strategies, anyone can create a workplace environment that’s free of shame and exclusivity —and cultivate a work environment that’s more innovative, creative, and happier than ever before. 

Start Building a Culture of Change

Watch the webinar, The Future of Work: Building a Culture Where Everyone Thrives to hear from work culture and psychological safety experts Alex Hirst, Wendy Gates Corbett, and Kelli Frey.

Watch the Webinar