Psychological safety: the secret ingredient of high-performing teams

Business owners who build and lead high-performing teams are rewarded with greater productivity, higher customer satisfaction and improved staff engagement. So, what behaviours promote team performance, and how can they be encouraged? Martin Oakley, of The Alternative Board (TAB) Cambridge, offers some key insights.

Genuine high performance in teams is notoriously hard to achieve and even harder to sustain. A task made harder still by the increasingly complex and uncertain world faced by business owners and their employees.

Sustained employee engagement and performance can seem an elusive goal at times but business owners who adopt the right mindset and behaviours can outperform even in a challenging market. Here’s how…

Google it!

In 2012, Google began a two-year study to answer the question, “What makes a team successful?”. They found five factors common to their most successful teams.

1. Psychological Safety – discretionary engagement is safe and rewarded.

2. Dependability – team members do what they say.

3. Structure & Clarity – roles, plans and goals are clear.

4. Meaning – the work is personally meaningful to team members.

5. Impact – members believe the work of the team matters.

The Google study was backed up by Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor and author of The Fearless Organization – Psychological Safety in the Workplace, who championed the now widely shared belief that psychological safety is, by some margin, the single biggest contributor to sustained high performance in teams.

So, what exactly is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is our perception of the risk involved in making a discretionary contribution to a team – for speaking up. Are we more likely to be rewarded or punished? It applies whenever we consider sharing an opinion, challenging or developing someone else’s idea, raising a concern, or owning up to a mistake. In the workplace, it is dictated by a leader’s behaviour and reinforced by the team. For example, are creative or partially formed ideas welcomed or shot down? What is the reaction to bad news, especially the treatment of the messenger?

Sustainable high performance in teams requires all members to engage and contribute fully, deploying their considerable discretionary effort. Psychological safety measures the extent to which team members feel able to do so.

Isn’t psychological safety simply being nice?

Psychological safety is often misunderstood. It is not about being nice, avoiding conflict, lowering performance standards or removing accountability.

Psychological safety promotes healthy challenge and debate among team members, resulting in more innovative solutions. It allows greater acceptance of performance-related risk, enabling teams to agree and achieve stretch goals. In psychologically safe teams, peers hold each other to account for collectively agreed standards. And, in our complex, ever-changing world, psychologically safe teams are more resilient, and better able to adapt and thrive.

Can I measure my team’s psychological safety?

An initial assessment of a team’s psychological safety can be obtained by asking just seven questions.

1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you?

2. Are members of this team able to raise problems and tough issues?

3. Do team members sometimes reject others for being different?

4. Is it safe to take a risk on this team?

5. Is it difficult to ask other members of this team for help?

6. Would a team member deliberately act in a way that undermines your efforts?

7. Are your unique skills and talents valued and utilised by team members?

Such assessments are best performed anonymously and by a qualified external party.

How do I build psychological safety in my team?

Psychological safety is enhanced when, as a leader, you clearly communicate desired behaviours, act as a role model and constructively address deviations within the team. Here’s how:

  • Welcome creative, partially formed ideas. Discourage cynical responses.
  • Encourage challenge and debate. Discourage defensive responses.
  • Welcome questions and requests for help. Make it OK not to know and request clarification.
  • When concerns or mistakes are raised, treat them as additional information that can aid timely preventive or corrective action, and ‘thank the messenger.’
  • Unless you have clear evidence of bad intent or negligence, give team members the benefit of the doubt.
  • When errors occur, focus on potential improvements to systems, processes, procedures, or training to avoid repetition – not on people to blame or punish.
  • Encourage all team members to participate and help quieter members be heard.
  • Address any behaviour that excludes or discriminates against one or more team members promptly and appropriately.

In summary, high-performing teams lead to high-performing businesses. While psychological safety alone does not guarantee sustained high performance, it may be considered a prerequisite.

Martin Oakley is the owner of The Alternative Board (TAB) Cambridge, a business that harnesses the power of peer advisory boards to help privately owned SMEs. The Alternative Board model combines personal coaching with monthly facilitated meetings between local business owners. Each business owner brings their personal experience and most pressing business challenge to the table each month, the collective wisdom leading to better decisions and more impactful solutions. Martin is launching a new peer board in the next few months with six seats available for local business owners looking to grow themselves and their businesses. You can contact Martin at: or visit

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