Safe results: Creating a culture of psychological safety to drive team performance

March 9, 2023

When it comes to building an effective, productive, and motivated team, creating a culture of psychological safety may be the most important factor in driving your team's performance. I sat down with Matt Howe from Benefits with Friends and Arthur Sintas from to explore psychological safety further. 

Psychological safety is the belief that team members can ask questions, speak openly and honestly, and experience no fear of consequence from providing their opinions.

When team members feel psychologically safe, they are more willing to take creative risks and explore innovative solutions. They also feel comfortable voicing their opinions with the knowledge that their ideas will be seriously considered rather than immediately shut down or dismissed. By encouraging teams to take part in constructive and meaningful dialogue, opportunities for creative problem-solving increase, and communication becomes more open and efficient.

Cultivate an atmosphere of trust through two dimensions

To create a culture of psychological safety, team members need to trust each other. When there is a foundation of trust, team members can be open and honest with their comments and ideas, contributing to the team's overall success. 

We started with the fact that psychological safety has two equally important dimensions. The first dimension is the individual context, like in one-to-one relationships, for example, between a manager and their reports. The second dimension is systemic psychological safety or the overall organizational culture that is embedded in systems.

For Matt Howe, Co-founder of Benefits with Friends, this distinction is important because founders and leaders need to be intentional about generating certain types of cultures and then replicating those values with managers. He shared that “if the manager doesn't embody that culture that you're espousing and doesn't manage you well and create that level of psychological safety, then all the efforts that you put in from the top down to create a broader culture of psychological safety are … redundant.”

If every company wants to see psychological safety in the workplace, what goes wrong in practice? Matt’s view is that “it can be very easy to let some of the softer sides of management slip by for expediency's sake.” We get busy. This is why that intention is so important.

Senior leaders can set these expectations for managers to build connections within their teams through one on one meetings that build trust long-term. Arthur Sintas, shared that “we are human first, and we should lean into what we naturally do as people…just take the time to get to know someone.” Even if your calendar feels full, sometimes you need to forego short-term gains (completing work) for long-term wins like getting to know staff in a meaningful way. For Arthur, the key ingredients for managers are “trust, transparency, and empathy.” 

Transparency can be difficult for some leaders because it is vulnerable to say, as Arthur shared, “We as managers are human. We don't have all the answers.” The important takeaway is to enter the one-on-one meeting by sharing that you don’t have all the answers but that you can provide some guidance in one way or may need to do more research to provide a better answer in the future.

Promote meaningful dialogue and team bonding

Part of building an atmosphere of trust is intentionally encouraging open dialogue. This means not assuming a team member will do this on their own. Encourage team members to ask questions, share their ideas, and ask for help.

By creating an atmosphere of respect, trust, and support, you can create a psychologically safe environment for your team. Team bonding activities provide a positive and fun environment for team members to get to know one another and build relationships. I believe this can help cultivate a trusting environment and make members feel more valued.

Matt and I talked about this aspect of psychological safety and agree it’s important, but separate from feedback, “Developing a culture and environment that provides the employees and the staff with freedom and confidence to express themselves and be themselves around each other. And through doing that work. They can speak up, they can be seen … [and this is] importantly distinct from disagreement and criticism.”

When it comes to feedback, we all agreed this is another space where meaningful dialogue benefits both the manager or peer delivering feedback and the person receiving it. Arthur chimed in that giving feedback can be uncomfortable when you haven’t taken the time to practice regularly, continuously, giving both positive and negative feedback, “I'm a big believer in showing people what they're doing well, as much as you possibly can, all the time, because I think people like that appreciation…[then] when it comes time to that behavior feedback, it is so much easier, because you've already built that rapport with the employee. They know that you're not out to…get them.”

Encourage a growth mindset

Once trust is built in the workplace, managers can actively encourage a growth mindset among team members. This allows them to develop their skill sets and challenge themselves without the fear of failure. This can be done by setting achievable goals and incentivizing team members for their efforts within a transparent, continuously assessed process.

A growth mindset can be encouraged through role modeling. Managers can lead by example, demonstrating growth and accepting feedback from team members to continue to progress. 360 feedback mechanisms and a culture of radical candor are some ways managers can promote this. Although some team members may resist this approach, according to Matt, “you as a manager, I think it is your job to demonstrate how to put that into practice, ensure that your team feels comfortable giving you criticism, that you welcome it. And almost more important than any of that, that you're internalizing it.” 

For Arthur, organizational culture, including a growth mindset, are a “ripple effect of the founding members…it’s very important to be self-aware of what the culture is you're bringing because those behaviors, those policies…become a ripple effect throughout the entire organization.” Intentionally embedding values will have a positive long-term impact.

It’s important to develop a work environment where employees feel free to express themselves. Managers can help promote that human-to-human interaction by being intentional about it - there are no shortcuts to trust!

Learn more about how our platform enables psychological safety in teams through transparency and building an atmosphere of fairness and growth.