Why psychological safety is essential for leading teams

By Marshall Eizenga

When I became a lead pastor in 2008, after 20 years as an associate pastor, I knew I had a lot to learn about leading a large staff team. So, rather than trying to figure everything out on my own, I reached out to one of my board members for some help. Her job, with a well-known corporation, was working with numerous, diverse teams to show them how to have more effective staff meetings which, in turn, would lead to increased productivity for her company.

Halfway through our first meeting she leaned in and said, “Marshall, along with everything else you’re going to need to do for your staff, one of your key roles is going to be providing a place of psychological safety for them.” Well, that was going to be a bit of a problem because I didn’t even know what that term meant.

With a little bit of digging here’s what I found.

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety, I came to understand, “is a shared belief held by members of a team that it’s OK to take risks, to express their ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes – all without fear of negative consequences.”1

When I took that definition back to my board member and asked what this meant in respect to my leadership, she bluntly informed me, “The greatest part of creating psychological safety will rest on your willingness to handle criticism and the critical thinking/examination of what we did or chose not to do.”

So, it became clear to me that for this to work effectively, I was going to have to ask myself some difficult questions. I was going to have to examine my own reaction to criticism and invite feedback from others that knew me well. I chose to do that hard work.

I decided to invite this board member into our staff meeting so that the entire team would have a picture of what psychological safety looked like. I knew that might be risky for me because it would make me accountable – but I also knew the risk was worth it.

She and I debriefed before the staff meeting and she led me through some of the exercises the team would participate in.

As I listened to her explain the dynamics to the staff, I remembered something I had read years earlier. Studies had shown that the vast majority of meetings will only ever get to 90 per cent of openness and engagement. Offering a place of psychological safety provides the setting where those in the meeting can get to the final 10 per cent of conversational participation, collaboration and honesty. That would be our goal.

The role of a leader

It is also incumbent for the leader to demonstrate a willingness to not only actively listen, but to incorporate valuable ideas in future plans. Research shows that when this occurs, there is a higher level of engagement, creativity and performance.

Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor who is considered one of the pioneers in this area of research, wrote, “Without an environment where candor is welcome, it’s difficult for a team to perform at their best. Psychological safety is a belief that the context is safe for interpersonal risks. Any time you ask a fellow team member the question, ‘How do you see it,’ you’re conveying respect and giving them that little moment of psychological safety because you’ve said, ‘I want your voice.’ “

I quickly came to realize a huge piece of my leadership in creating psychologically safe meetings naturally involved listening, affirming and asking for clarity in a non-threatening fashion.

One of the keys I learned about creating a safe place for collaboration was using the phrase, “Help me understand . . .” This non-threatening question asked in an inquiring way provided the presenter with the ability to give more detail or further explanation to the topic of discussion without feeling foolish or dismissed. It also puts the onus of understanding on the one who is listening.

The establishment of a psychologically safe environment is vital because without it, research has shown the negative impact on teams includes stress, burnout and turnover. As well, the overall performance of the organization is hindered.

4 ways to implement psychological safety

Should you desire to increase your team’s productivity, here are four points taken from Edmondson’s work about implementing psychological safety into your work environment.

Step 1: Solicit criticism.

You must keep a few things in mind when soliciting criticism. Ask “what” questions, such as, “What could I do or stop doing that would make it easier to work with me?” or “What’s working, and what could I or we be doing better?” These questions suggest an open mind to learn what others think or observe.

Next, embrace the discomfort. The other person/people will feel awkward no matter how good your question is. The only way out is through. It’s also important to listen with the intent to understand, not to respond. Managing your defensiveness is crucial.

Finally, if you agree with the feedback, make the change or fix the problem, and share with everyone what you did, thanking the person who gave you feedback. If you disagree, try to find some aspect of what they said that you agree with and give voice to it to show you’re receptive to it. Then, explain why you see the issue differently, being as concrete as possible.

Step 2: Give praise.

Soliciting feedback is only the first step. Giving praise is an integral part in creating psychological safety for your team. When people know that their manager and peers notice the good work they are doing, it’s far less threatening when flaws are pointed out.

Step 3: Give criticism.

Of course, you also need to let people know when they’re making a mistake so that they have an opportunity to fix it, improve and grow in their careers.

To understand why giving radically candid criticism builds psychological safety, think about a time when you knew you were doing something wrong, but you were not sure what it was. Did you feel safe? A young employee who was getting no feedback from her boss reported feeling like a “dead man walking.” There’s nothing safe about feeling unsure of where one stands.

Step 4: Gauge your feedback.

When giving praise or criticism in a way that fosters psychological safety, you need to gauge how it is landing. If the other person thinks you’re being obnoxious, you need to figure out how to communicate more effectively with that person. Intentions don’t matter; impact does.

According to psychologist Shawn Bakker, the impact of providing a psychologically safe workplace “is one of the core dynamics that differentiates between effective and ineffective teams.” He goes on to add that “psychological safety is increasing when leaders see higher levels of engagement, creativity and performance.”

Is creating psychological safety risky for a leader? Perhaps. Is it worth the risk? Every single time.


1 Amy Gallo, “What is Psychological Safety?Harvard Business Review, February 15, 2023.


Marshall Eizenga is one of the program directors at the Alberta Kerith Retreats location with his wife, Merrie. For more information about our retreats, visit KerithRetreats.ca.

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