Resilience - Psychological Safety

Resilience – Psychological Safety

In this series, I am introducing you to the twenty superpowers that leaders need to possess to create an environment for resilience. This is an environment in which individuals and teams are resilient in the face of constant change.

Individual resilience is critical when the world around us is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Resilience means we can adapt to difficult situations and not just survive but thrive. Unless we do, the stress will overwhelm us, and we will suffer physically and mentally.

Each week we will explore one of those twenty superpowers.

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Superpower – The Caretaker   

The Caretaker makes sure that there is psychological safety in the workplace.

The term ‘psychological safety’ was first coined by Amy C. Edmondson in her 1999 research study of workplace teams. Edmondson is a Harvard Business School professor and defines psychological safety as:

“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

Her research in the 1990s, across numerous US hospitals sought to find out if better teams make fewer mistakes.

What she discovered was just the opposite of what she had expected.

It was the most cohesive hospital teams seemingly making the most mistakes, not fewer.

Further investigation revealed that the better teams weren’t making more mistakes. They were more able and willing to talk about their mistakes.

This became Edmondson’ influential 1999 paper, titled “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.”

Since then, her research has continued, showing that psychological safety can make not just teams, but entire organizations perform better.

In 2015 Google published the results of Project Aristotle – a two-year study into what makes a great team. The interesting thing was that the answer wasn’t: those with the most senior people, with the highest IQs or even those that made the least number of mistakes.

Google found that there were 5 key dynamics that make great teams successful – the leading one being psychological safety.

The Google re:Work guide on team effectiveness describes psychological safety as:

“Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”[1]

When team members sense psychological safety they will speak out, share ideas, take risks, and be innovative and creative. They do this knowing that they will not be ridiculed in the process. They know that their contribution to a discussion is a valued one.

They feel able to speak up, question and challenge, present new thoughts and ideas, without adverse repercussion.

This is what is needed if organizations are to be creative, experiment and innovate to stay ahead of the competition. It is what is needed for employees to be resilient in the face of constant change. They can speak openly, ask questions, ask for support, challenge the status quo, challenge ideas and initiatives and present better ways of doing things.

How do you create an environment of psychological safety?

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Lead by example  

You need to set an example for employees. This means you ask for upward feedback, acknowledge your mistakes, be open to opinions that are different from your own, be available and approachable, and encourage people to ask questions and challenge assumptions.

If you don’t admit your mistakes, no one in a room in which they consider everyone perfect, is going to speak up. When you admit you made a mistake, you are encouraging others to do the same.


Be vulnerable. Admit it if you don’t know something and ask others for their input. Share your feelings with your team and tell them when you feel frustrated or stressed, motivated or inspired. When you do this, others will do the same.

Replace criticism with curiosity

If something has not gone according to plan, don’t assume you know the reason why. Do not criticize your employees but rather explore what went wrong with curiosity.

Focus on the resolution rather than the fault.

Active listening

Active listening means that employees feel valued, have a sense of belonging, and are contributing to the team.

Active listening means being present, really hearing what people are saying, validating your understanding by repeating what was said, encouraging people to share more by asking them questions, and encourage those not participating to speak up and be involved.


As a leader, you need to create the safety. This means you need to exhibit these behaviours and guide your team to do the same thing. When these behaviours are not exhibited, they need to be called out and challenged.

  • Do not interrupt when someone is speaking
  • Keep an open mind
  • There is no judgement
  • All ideas are accepted
  • There is no blame
  • There is no bad idea however whacky
  • The crazier, the better!


You may put in place systems and structures by having some ‘rules’ around meetings and behaviours.

This could be the form of a meeting charter that lists expected behaviours such as the ones listed in the previous Safety section.


Include team members in decision-making. Gather their feedback and opinions and value each and every contribution. Explain how you came to make particular decisions and acknowledge the input of others. Invite the team to challenge your ideas.

Healthy conflict

If conflict arises, approach it as a mediator and ask the question “How can we achieve a mutual desirable outcome?”

Try an exercise called “Just Like Me”. This helps people put themselves in someone else’s position and helps resolve conflict. It promotes empathy. The exercise gets participants to reflect and consider questions such as the following:

  • This person has beliefs, perspectives, and opinions, just like me.
  • This person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like me.
  • This person has friends, family, and perhaps children who love them, just like me.
  • This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me.
  • This person wishes for peace, joy, and happiness, just like me.

Difficult conversations

Leaders should try and anticipate reactions and plan responses when difficult conversations are likely to arise. Leaders can be prepared and confront the situation head-on. Gather concrete evidence to support a position. Anticipate the questions or arguments that may arise. Think about the possible objections or arguments and your response to them. Look for any weaknesses in your position and mitigate them.


Leaders have to establish and keep trust. There will be no psychological safety without it.

Trust is established when you hold yourself accountable and do what you said you would do. People see you as competent and dependable.

The team has to see their leader as their ally. Treat them with compassion and respect. Practice empathy. Don’t judge them when things go wrong. Work with them to learn from the opportunity the failure presents. Leaders need emotional intelligence.

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Amy C. Edmondson created a Team Learning and Psychological Safety Survey.

You can access it here:

Create your own version based on this one to measure the level of psychological safety within your team.

Just use some simple statement such as the following which need a Yes or No answer.

  1. When someone makes a mistake in this team, it is often held against him or her.
  2. In this team, it is hard to discuss difficult issues and problems.
  3. In this team, people are sometimes rejected for being different.
  4. It is not completely safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.

Silence is a deadly killer

There is no place for fear in an organization today if it is going to sense and respond in a world of constant change. There is no place if the organization is to innovate and experiment.

With fear comes silence. The unspoken can kill an organization.



You can read more in Karen’s Leadership and Resilience series, here

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