Thought Leadership

Why Team Psychological Safety Matters


In the last few years, you’ve probably noticed the growing number of articles in Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and other business publications with titles like:

“What is Psychological Safety?”

“Psychological Safety, Emotional Intelligence, and Leadership in a Time of Flux”

“Psychological Safety at Work is More Important Than Ever and Here’s Why”

Some readers may see those headlines and wonder, “Is this ‘psychological safety’ thing even real, or is it just another management fad? And even if it’s valid, why should I care?”

The short story is that:

  • Yes, “psychological safety” is a real thing. It’s a well-researched attribute of teams that can be measured and—perhaps more importantly—intentionally developed.

  • It’s important to understand this if you lead, participate in, or rely on any cross-functional team. There’s a common misconception that we can create great teams simply by grouping the most skilled individuals we can find. And, if a team is underperforming, it’s because of shortcomings in the team members. Neither of these beliefs has a basis in fact.

  • A team’s shared sense of psychological safety is the most important contributor to their performance. A large body of evidence shows this is true in most work settings—whether it involves a surgical team, a group of software developers, or a Navy SEAL combat unit.

  • Lastly, many teams don’t naturally fall into a state of shared safety. Regardless of how smart or well-meaning the individual members are, there’s no guarantee they’ll gel into a collaborative unit.  Fortunately, safety is a cultural trait that can be intentionally fostered on almost any team.

If you work with teams—especially Agile teams—you’ll benefit from understanding why and how psychological safety factors so heavily into team dynamics.

There’s a lot to unpack on this topic, but in this post we’ll review some foundational concepts and how they apply to Agile teams.

Understanding Psychological Safety

First let’s define what we mean by “psychological safety.”  Harvard Business School professor Amy C. Edmondson popularized the term in a groundbreaking 1999 paper as, “A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

In other words, psychological safety is “felt permission for candor.”

Because we’re concerned with the dynamics of teams, we can also adopt Edmondson’s definition of a team: “A stable, bounded group of individuals who are interdependent in achieving a shared goal.” 

It’s easy to misinterpret psychological safety to imply team members are simply “being nice” or avoiding conflict, but that’s not the case. Robust debates and unflinching feedback are often seen in highly successful teams. The key is that all team members feel they’ll be heard and accepted within the group, even if they voice an idea that is unpopular or even misinformed.

What’s the Impact of Team Psychological Safety (or Lack of It)?

The connection between psychological safety and team performance has been extensively researched in the last 25 years, producing at least 150 academic papers along with dozens of books and articles. As it relates to software teams, perhaps the most compelling evidence was provide by Google.

In a three-year study that analyzed over 250 attributes of 180+ Google teams, all the researchers’ original premises were proven wrong. As one principal analyst put it, “We were pretty confident that we’d find the perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for a stellar team…We were dead wrong. Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions. ” 

Their findings aligned perfectly with what Edmondson had postulated 15 years earlier: “Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five [team] dynamics.”

Why is Psychological Safety so Important to Team Success?

More than 30 years ago, Peter Senge predicted in his highly influential book The Fifth Discipline that, “As the world becomes more interconnected and business becomes more complex and dynamic…the organizations that will truly excel in the future will be the organizations that discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn.” Furthermore, he had the insight that “the fundamental learning units in an organization are teams.”

This is why psychological safety is so fundamentally important. A team’s ability to learn together is mostly dependent on their “felt permission for candor.” Group learning is accelerated when people feel safe to ask “dumb” questions, share new ideas, ask for help, and brainstorm freely. In contrast, when those behaviors are shut down by a lack of felt safety, team learning slows—or is even extinguished entirely. 

Team learning functions like compound interest.  It almost doesn’t matter what level the team begins at.  If they are constantly learning and improving, even by small increments, the effect over months and years is profound.

Why Agile Teams are the Perfect Example

When we look at how Agile teams operate, it’s immediately obvious why psychological safety is so important to their success.  While practices and frameworks vary, Agile teams commonly:

  • Combine people with diverse skills, cooperating to achieve a common goal
  • Work on complex problems—that is, problems that can’t be addressed by following a predetermined checklist or recipe
  • Self-organize to work efficiently together
  • Need to adapt frequently to changing conditions

In this environment, a team must be able to communicate freely and learn together to succeed. Without psychological safety, the team simply can’t operate effectively, regardless of what framework they adopt.

What Can You do to Help Your Teams?

Fostering the conditions for a team to build their psychological safety requires a mix of science and art.  It’s especially tricky for managers that aren’t part of the team yet still want to support it.

We need to recognize that only the team itself can develop an internal culture of safety. This isn’t a quality that can be imposed from outside.  Still, leaders can help foster an environment that helps teams grow. 

Edmonson offered this wise counsel in her 2014 TEDx talk:

“Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem. Recognize and make explicit that there is enormous uncertainty ahead, and enormous interdependence. Given those two things, we’ve never been here before. We can’t know what will happen.  We’ve got to have everybody’s brains and voices in the game! That creates the rationale for speaking up.

Second, acknowledge your own fallibility. You know you’re fallible. Say simple things like, ‘I may miss something, I need to hear from you.’ This goes, by the way, for subordinates and colleagues, peers, alike. That creates more safety for asking questions.

And third, model curiosity. That actually creates a necessity for voice.”

If you’re interested in learning more about psychological safety and how it can impact your organization, reach out to our Agile experts via the form below: