Psychological safety: The cornerstone of high-performing teams


What makes some teams function better than others? How can you as a leader promote efficiency and creativity in your teams? One of the most important factors – some say the most important – is psychological safety.

Let’s say you have a task that needs doing. You put together two teams and let them work on the task separately. Team A consists of exceptionally brilliant and highly successful individuals. Team B consists of trusted employees but not necessarily your most valuable individual players. Which team will be the most efficient in solving the task? 

Well, that depends.

You might presume that Team A would be your best bet. They are the creme de la creme after all. But there is one factor that might put Team B ahead. This factor is called psychological safety.

In her 1999 study called Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams, Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson found that some teams have a collective intelligence that is greater than the sum of its parts. Edmondson defines it as ‘a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’.


TED talk by Amy Edmondson: Building a psychologically safe workplace


Share the floor

The first sign that a team feels psychologically safe is that its members speak in roughly the same proportion. Some might have more to say than others on a certain topic, and that’s perfectly fine. But at the end of the day, everyone will have shared the floor. 

Conversely, some teams will have one or a few persons who does most of the talking while the other members don’t say much at all. These are teams that tend not to feel psychologically safe. 

Know your team members 

The second sign of high psychological safety in a team is that its members intuitively know how the other members feel, based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. This allows them to take action if they sense that someone is feeling left out or upset, whereas teams with less sensible members will carry on as if nothing had happened. 

What are the benefits? 

If you want high-performing teams, you really should strive for a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

People who feel psychologically safe will tend to trust each other and work together as a team, rather than a group of individuals. As a result they will be more efficient and often more creative.

In a recent attempt to discover the secrets of effective teams at Google, their researchers found that psychological safety is more important than anything else to make a team function properly.

More important than ever

Today, in an ever-changing world of global disruption and temporary engagements, this might be more important than ever. As stated above, high levels of efficiency and creativity are some of the positive effects of psychological safety. And these happen to be key factors for Nordic organisations in order to compete in a global market. 

Are you interested in learning more and promoting psychological safety in your team? Contact us for a free consultation.

Consultant & Chartered Psychologist