In their concise and insightful guidebook, consultants Karolin Helbig and Minette Norman offer 25 actionable tips leaders can implement immediately to improve psychological safety at work. They outline five skills leaders must harness to do so: communication; listening; emotional regulation; managing failure; and inclusion. Each of the five skills is handily accompanied by five ways to implement them. Accessible and inspiring, this handbook fills a long-standing gap in the literature on psychological safety: exactly how to nurture it in relationships, teams and cultures.
- Everyone needs to feel psychologically safe to reach their full potential.
- Communicate courageously: Welcome diverse viewpoints – and don’t insist on your own.
- Improve your listening skills to help others feel understood.
- Regulate your emotional reactions, so workers feel safe to challenge you.
- Make it safe to take risks and fail; then employees feel free to learn and innovate.
- Design inclusive rituals and gather feedback to encourage everyone’s participation.
Everyone needs to feel psychologically safe to reach their full potential.
After studying hundreds of teams, Google’s Project Aristotle found that psychological safety was the most important element in group success. When people feel psychologically safe, they can ask questions, pose ideas, state concerns and admit mistakes without fear of being humiliated or punished. Psychological safety leads to more inclusive, innovative and high-performing cultures.
“Think of psychological safety as the essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals needed to develop healthy teams.”
As a leader, your role is to set the tone. Ensure everyone feels valued, and create an environment where people feel safe to contribute ideas, express dissent and challenge you when necessary. Model the behavior you seek – including listening, humility, trust and openness to criticism – to encourage the same actions in others.
Communicate courageously: Welcome diverse viewpoints – and don’t insist on your own.
When leaders drop the need to be right all the time and actively invite other points of view, they foster a psychologically safe environment that enhances innovation and outcomes.
“Courageous communication requires leaders to be vulnerable, to show up authentically and to acknowledge that we are all works in progress.”
- Invite varied viewpoints – Welcome a variety of perspectives; this will make people feel valued and minimize conformity bias and groupthink. In meetings, invite feedback and ask, “What am I missing?” Set aside time for responses, and keep your door open for private discussions. However, you’ll need to balance diverse inputs with practical deadlines.
- Encourage dissent – Foster an environment of healthy dissent. Focus on challenging ideas rather than criticizing people. For example, you can say, “That’s one viewpoint. Now let’s hear some dissent.” Thank those who share their ideas. To encourage diversity of thought, assign someone the role of devil’s advocate. Provide various ways of giving feedback – surveys, emails, informal chats – to ensure input from everyone.
- Display feelings productively – Develop skills to better express your emotions. Skillful expression means finding the middle ground between strong emotional outbursts, which can harm psychological safety, and emotional nonreactivity, which can do the same. Start by noticing how different emotions affect your body. If you notice a strong emotion rising, take a break and a few deep breaths to reduce stress and anxiety. Then give a calm and productive answer.
- Shed perfectionism – Don’t pretend to be perfect. Leaders should admit where they don’t know something. Demonstrate your own vulnerability to create a space where workers feel comfortable asking questions and seeking answers. Aim to be a servant leader rather than one who’s an expert at everything. When you don’t know the answer to a question, admit it. Commit to finding out more, and ask others for help if needed. To promote a culture of continuous learning, celebrate good questions and give others credit for great answers.
- Be funny – Make space for humor; it can boost well-being and performance by building connection and trust. Turn on your “humor radar,” and pay attention to funny details in daily life. Collect and refine those items; then share them with colleagues.
Improve your listening skills to help others feel understood.
Skillful listening involves clarifying your understanding of others’ perspectives and tuning into the emotions behind what they say.
“Fundamentally, listening is having the humility to realize that our own view is not the truth – that we, too, have blind spots and might miss important data.”
Listen mindfully – Mindful listening strengthens your humility, builds empathy and leads to better decision-making. Remember, you can accept the validity of someone else’s viewpoint without agreeing with it.
- Participate fully – Turn off external distractions, and focus solely on your conversation partner. When your mind wanders, notice and label the thought, feeling or sensation; then let it go, and refocus on the other person. Paraphrase your understanding of what they said. Then share your own perspective and allow others to do the same. Finally, ask, “What’s the best way forward?”
- Clarify what you’ve heard – To reduce miscommunication and boost engagement, paraphrase and summarize what you think you’ve heard in your own words. Then, let the other person clarify or add extra information. Deepen the conversation by asking, “What makes you think that way?”
- Tune into others’ emotions – Pay attention to other people’s emotions, too. Emotions are crucial to decision-making, but people rarely state them clearly. To identify them, look closely at micro-expressions, gestures and body language. State what you think the person is feeling, and then ask for confirmation and clarity about why they may or may not feel that way. Show empathy without judgment.
- Demonstrate curiosity – Develop curiosity about others and their perspectives. Say, “Tell me more” and encourage people to elaborate on their perspectives and thoughts. Instead of jumping right in with your response, allow a moment of silence that invites the speaker to engage further.
Regulate your emotional reactions, so workers feel safe to challenge you.
Practice managing your reactions, so you don’t automatically shut people down when they challenge you.
“Getting in touch with how we feel allows us to choose a productive response rather than being unconsciously ruled by our emotions.”
- Respond non-defensively – Emotional regulation requires self-awareness and emotional control, as well as sincere appreciation for your challenger. Learn to notice your defensive reactions early on, and then hit pause. Take a few deep breaths, relax your body, and respond constructively by asking follow-up questions to learn more.
- React calmly and objectively – Take control of your emotions by labeling them with your logical mind. Be objective; state what, where and when you feel an emotion without judgment. Strong emotions, such as happiness, sadness or fear, can be easy to identify, but subtler ones may require more work to unpack. Print out a useful list of emotions, such as the one in Susan David’s Emotional Agility, and keep it nearby.
- Take off your blinders – Everyone has blind spots. To deconstruct them, search for alternative perspectives before you jump to conclusions. The brain prefers fast and automatic thinking, but that can reinforce cognitive biases. View your first conclusion as a work in progress. To gain a broader perspective, look for contradictory evidence and missing data.
- Value people who challenge you – Express grace and gratitude toward your challengers. The fight-flight-freeze response occurs automatically in life-threatening situations, but it can also be triggered in non-fatal situations, like when someone challenges you. Recognize and label your emotional and physiological responses to being challenged. Then breathe deeply and move toward confrontation rather than away from it. Remind yourself of the values and goals you share.
- Learn from new ideas – To promote motivation and creativity, avoid negative and judgmental reactions to new ideas. Instead, build on them: Don’t say, “no” right away. Instead, say, “yes, and” – then finish the sentence in a way that others can modify or build on your thoughts; and treat new proposals as valuable experiments to test within a larger learning loop.
Make it safe to take risks and fail; then employees feel free to learn and innovate.
How leaders deal with risk and failure affects workers’ psychological safety and the overall tone of an organization.
“Embracing risk and failure doesn’t mean lowering performance standards or letting accountability slide.”
- Welcome failure – When you try something new, you’re likely to fail in the beginning. Embrace risk-taking and failure to boost your learning process, foster honest conversations and achieve better results. Ultimately, failure can enhance performance outcomes.
- Learn from failure – Frame failure as part of the journey toward innovation and success. Let others know failure is normal, and the goal is to share what you learn from coming up short. Share stories of famous people’s failures to illustrate how high performers overcame and learned from setbacks. Adopt a growth mind-set yourself, and encourage it in others. Reduce people’s fear of failure by positioning it as a valuable source of data and learning. Ask helpful questions, such as, “What does this experience tell us?” Reward people for their curiosity and courage.
- Befriend uncomfortable emotions – Innovation and resilience require embracing difficult emotions. When discomfort arises, stay calm, pause and take a few deep breaths. Create distance by labeling your emotions. Talk to yourself in the second person to gain objectivity. Befriend your inner critic, but don’t identify with its criticisms. Move from simple awareness of difficult emotions to full-on acceptance and appreciation of them.
- Showcase learning behavior – When you’re wrong, admit it and share what you’ve learned. Your actions will encourage others to do the same. Reflect on your recent mistakes. Extract three key insights, and share them with others. Adjust how much detail you give based on the person and situation.
- Facilitate continual learning – Celebrate the learning that comes from failure and mistakes. Help employees understand why a failure occurred and how to remedy it. Conduct regular, blame-free postmortems – reviews to discuss errors and missteps without judgment. Use neutral questions to analyze exactly what happened; avoid resorting to shame and blame. Focus on how much learning took place. Experiment with “premortems,” too: Imagine your next project has failed, and brainstorm reasons why it might happen. Reward the people who identify potential flaws in a plan.
Design inclusive rituals and gather feedback to encourage everyone’s participation.
Hiring a diverse team doesn’t automatically lead to an inclusive culture. To encourage contributions from everyone, adopt rituals that support full participation.
“By building inclusive rituals into our everyday interactions and by being consistent with these rituals, we can build a culture in which everyone is heard, seen and respected.”
- Nominate an “inclusion booster” – At meetings, appoint an “inclusion booster” to ensure everyone gets a chance to speak. This moderator can keep track of how long each person speaks, intervene when someone dominates the conversation, invite others to contribute, and clarify anything that seems obscure. If the group quickly converges on one idea, the moderator should ask for alternatives. Pass this role around to allow different people to learn by performing it.
- Respect everyone’s voice – Establish a no-interruption rule, and encourage people to speak concisely, so others have time to talk as well. When someone does interrupt, jump in with a quick, “Please let [the speaker] finish their point.” If certain individuals have a habit of interrupting, speak with them in private and focus on how their interruptions affect others. Model inclusive listening behavior.
- Ensure all can speak – To foster innovation and avoid groupthink, set a rule that, “no one speaks twice until everyone speaks once.” During meetings, move from speaker to speaker and use a visual timer to keep everyone concise. Give each person an opportunity to speak without interruption. If someone isn’t ready to speak, circle back to that person later. Use an online collaboration tool to bring all the ideas together.
- Assemble feedback – Gather post-meeting feedback to promote accountability and measure progress. Involve team members to determine the best way to collect, analyze and act on feedback. Keep all responses confidential.
- Convey appreciation – Regularly express gratitude toward workers. Thank people for their work, for asking difficult questions, and for challenging prevailing ideas. Celebrate those who’ve tackled a hard problem, and honor those who’ve shared what they learned or got wrong.
About the Authors
Karolin Helbig is a mind-set coach for executives. Minette Norman is a leadership consultant and former Silicon Valley executive who works with companies to build more inclusive cultures.
In “The Psychological Safety Playbook,” Minette Norman provides a comprehensive guide for leaders to create a culture of psychological safety in their organizations. Through a combination of research, case studies, and practical exercises, Norman explains how leaders can foster a sense of safety, trust, and belonging among their team members, which in turn leads to increased collaboration, creativity, and productivity.
Part One: Understanding Psychological Safety
In the first part, Norman sets the foundation for the book by defining psychological safety and its importance in the workplace. She explains that psychological safety is not about creating a comfortable or risk-free environment, but rather about creating a culture where employees feel safe to take risks, share their ideas, and be themselves without fear of negative consequences. Norman also highlights the benefits of psychological safety, including increased collaboration, creativity, and productivity.
Part Two: The Five Principles of Psychological Safety
Norman identifies five key principles of psychological safety that leaders must embody to create a culture of safety:
- Inquiry and Advocacy: Leaders must encourage questions, actively listen, and seek diverse perspectives to foster an environment of open communication and collaboration.
- Collaborative Leadership: Leaders must share decision-making responsibilities, empower employees, and promote a culture of shared ownership and accountability.
- Emotional Intelligence: Leaders must develop their emotional intelligence to recognize and regulate their own emotions and respond appropriately to the emotions of others.
- Authenticity: Leaders must be genuine, transparent, and vulnerable in their interactions with employees, fostering a sense of trust and belonging.
- Integrity: Leaders must act with integrity, maintain confidentiality, and be accountable for their actions to establish a foundation of trust.
Part Three: Implementing Psychological Safety in Your Organization
In this section, Norman provides practical tools and strategies for leaders to implement the five principles of psychological safety in their organizations. She offers guidance on how to create a safe space for employees to share their ideas, how to give and receive feedback, and how to handle conflicts and mistakes. Norman also emphasizes the importance of leadership presence, which involves being fully engaged, attentive, and responsive to the needs of employees.
Part Four: Sustaining Psychological Safety
In the final part of the book, Norman focuses on how leaders can sustain a culture of psychological safety over time. She stresses the importance of continuous learning, reflecting on successes and failures, and embedding psychological safety into the organization’s DNA. Norman also provides tips for measuring psychological safety and creating a plan for ongoing improvement.
- Defining Psychological Safety: Norman provides a clear definition of psychological safety, which refers to the ability to show up and be vulnerable in the workplace without fear of reprisal or judgment. She argues that this is a critical component of leadership effectiveness and organizational success.
- The Benefits of Psychological Safety: The book highlights the numerous benefits of psychological safety, including increased collaboration, creativity, and innovation, as well as improved employee well-being and retention. Norman also emphasizes the positive impact of psychological safety on business outcomes, such as increased productivity, customer satisfaction, and financial performance.
- The Four Principles of Psychological Safety: Norman identifies four key principles of psychological safety that leaders can use to create a more inclusive and supportive work environment: (1) Be Present, (2) Be Vulnerable, (3) Be Articulate, and (4) Be Accountable. These principles are essential for fostering a culture of psychological safety and are supported by real-world examples and case studies.
- The Role of Leadership: Norman emphasizes the critical role of leadership in creating a culture of psychological safety. She argues that leaders must model the behavior they want to see in their teams and create a safe space for workers to share their ideas and concerns.
- Building a Culture of Psychological Safety: The book offers practical strategies for building a culture of psychological safety, including creating a safe space for open communication, fostering a sense of belonging, and promoting a growth mindset. Norman also emphasizes the importance of ongoing training and development to help leaders and team members build the necessary skills to maintain a culture of psychological safety.
- Addressing Common Obstacles: Norman acknowledges that creating a culture of psychological safety can be challenging and outlines several common obstacles that leaders may face, including political dynamics, power imbalances, and a lack of trust. She provides strategies for overcoming these obstacles and creating a more inclusive and productive work environment.
- Comprehensive guide: The book offers a thorough and well-structured guide to creating a culture of psychological safety, with practical strategies and tools for leaders to implement.
- Research-backed: Norman draws on extensive research in organizational behavior, psychology, and leadership to support her arguments, making the book a valuable resource for leaders seeking to create a more effective workplace culture.
- Accessible language: Norman uses clear and concise language, making the book accessible to leaders with varying levels of experience and expertise.
- Lack of case studies: While the book provides some examples of organizations that have successfully implemented psychological safety, more case studies or real-world examples would have strengthened the book’s practical applications.
- Limited examples: Some readers may find that the book’s examples are not as diverse or representative as they would like.
- Overemphasis on leadership: While the book acknowledges the importance of employee participation in creating psychological safety, it places significant emphasis on leadership’s role, which may overlook the contributions of employees in creating a safe work environment.
“The Psychological Safety Playbook” is primarily aimed at leaders and managers who want to create a more collaborative, innovative, and productive team culture. The book is also suitable for human resources professionals, organizational development specialists, and anyone interested in creating a more positive and inclusive work environment.
Why Read the Book?
“The Psychological Safety Playbook” is an essential read for any leader seeking to create a more inclusive and productive work environment. Norman’s insights are based on years of research and real-world experience, making the book a valuable resource for leaders at all levels. The book’s practical strategies and case studies provide a roadmap for building a culture of psychological safety, and its emphasis on the critical role of leadership makes it a must-read for any leader seeking to drive business success.
“The Psychological Safety Playbook” is a thought-provoking and empowering book that offers a comprehensive framework for creating a culture of psychological safety. Norman’s insights are invaluable for any leader seeking to foster a more inclusive and productive work environment, and the book’s practical strategies and real-world examples make it a must-read for anyone looking to drive business success through leadership effectiveness.