Psychological Safety is the Foundation of Strong Teams and Culture

Diego Schmunis

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I’ve been reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni once a year, every single year, since my mother bought me a copy of the book back in 2013. Over the years, I have gifted over 100 copies of this book to various team members and executives that I’ve worked with.

I’ve read many great books on leadership (Turn the Ship Around by David Marquet is another great leadership read), yet this is my favorite one. It’s written as a fable, is a quick and entertaining read and, most importantly, it clearly and directly points out to a group of dysfunctions that can have a significant negative impact on the ability of any team to execute.

The layers in the pyramid, and their order (read from the bottom up), make perfect sense once you read the story and understand the dysfunction that they represent.

I think that it’s a great framework to analyze a team’s performance and effectiveness and, as such, it’s a hard model to improve and one that, for me, has stood the test of time for the last 10 years.

However, recently, I started to feel that something was missing.

Just like you can’t start a fire without a spark, you need something to spark trust-building in your teams so that you, and them, can get started on the path to addressing, correcting and overcoming the other dysfunctions.

So, what’s the missing element that jumpstarts building trust in your teams? I believe it is psychological safety.

The term “psychological safety” was first coined by Amy Edmondson back in 1999 and defined as:

“A shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

But it wasn’t until 2012 when Google ran Project Aristotle that the term really took off.

The study identified several factors that impact a team’s cohesiveness, such as dependability, structure and clarity, meaning and impact, but it was psychological safety that really stood out as the key element empowering all other factors.

Lacking psychological safety, team members don’t feel safe enough to speak up or take an action publicly, participate in team discussions or challenge each other. When team members don’t challenge each other, this could lead to perpetuating the status-quo or confirmation bias. This precludes constructive conflict that leads to better ideas and outcomes.

One of the reasons why I feel that psychological safety is such a critical and important component of any strong team culture is because one of the key components of building trust in a team is good and effective communication.

How a team communicates, or not, has a tremendous impact on the team’s culture and ability to execute as a single cohesive unit rather than a random grouping of individuals.

Communication can take two distinctive forms:

  • Verbal: the words that we say or write to communicate our thoughts and ideas
  • Actions: the activities that we perform and the outcomes and value that they generate

But these forms of communication can’t have the intended impact and drive value unless they are: open, direct, honest, transparent and respectful.

Unfortunately, none of these qualities for effective communication can happen unless team members feel safe and empowered to openly communicate in this manner.

It is the presence of psychological safety that creates the right environment for team members to feel safe to show up and speak up, verbally or through actions, as their true selves.

When team members feel safe from ridicule, rejection and even punishment, they are free to truly speak up (whether in verbal or written form) and act their minds. This is where the true value of a diverse team (culture add) starts to shine.

How are you and your teams helping to build psychological safety? Please leave comments below.

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Diego Schmunis

🌟 Observations while on a journey of discovery and self-development through exploring creativity and self-expression. Let's explore together. Join me! 🚀