What I got all wrong about psychological safety


Hands up, at first, I got the concept of psychological safety all wrong.

And I (sort of) blame my parents. 👩‍🦳👩‍🦲

I grew up with the mantra ‘don’t put your head above the parapet’. Taking risks was not encouraged. Who wants to risk looking foolish?

Not me, thanks very much.

So, when I first heard about the concept of psychological safety, I thought it was about making sure everyone felt comfortable.

When I started coaching teams, I wanted people to feel at ease, so they’d contribute.

And it seemed to be OK for a bit.

But then I noticed elephants in the room that nobody dare mention. 🐘

At the time, I worked with my husband Steve, and I noticed I disagreed with him all the time and that was OK.

I’d offer up ideas that were occasionally half-baked, give difficult feedback, get stubborn about things I felt passionate about, and gave way when I was wrong. And Steve did the same.

It didn’t feel comfortable – but it did feel safe. And it produced some great results.

Here is where I was getting it all wrong:

It turns out that safety is not the same as comfort and if they get confused the results can be pretty unhelpful.

Your job as a leader is protect your team from harm:

✅ Make sure you’ve got the right people in the team, and that you effectively manage any brilliant jerks.

It’s not about protecting your team from discomfort:

❌ Don’t keep stepping in to prop up the team targets instead of having the difficult accountability conversation (which will help the team grow).

I built psychological safety with Steve by accident.

“The more you face ‘cognitive friction’, the better you get at not taking other people’s pushback and different ideas personally.”

When I applied this thinking to teams, it meant the trust I was building in teams had a purpose. And led to some uncomfortable but meaningful conversations, and ultimately team growth.

Warning ⚠️

You can push it too far.

Ironically if everyone felt safe to say EXACTLY what they want this reduces psychological safety. 🤬

So, when it comes to feedback, keep it constructive. When you’re starting out you might even want to try Feed Forward – where you focus on the suggestions for development.

Are your team too darn comfortable for their own good?

Or are they keeping quiet for fear of the consequences?

You might want to share this e-mail with them and start a conversation about what it means to feel safe in your team.

Top tip: start the chats in pairs so people feel safe right from the start