How can leaders create psychological safety?

by | May 6, 2021 | Effective Teams, Innovation, Leadership

In The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Daniel Coyle (2018) shares three skills of highly successful organizational cultures: 

(1) Build safety, 

(2) Share vulnerability, and 

(3) Establish purpose. 

This article is the first installment of a three part series about organizational culture and explores psychological safety. The importance of safety is often overlooked by leaders. According to Coyle (2018), teams that experience safety often describe themselves as a family. What words would your team use to describe itself?

Google has studied their teams and identified five characteristics of effective Google teams. The first characteristic is psychological safety:

“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.” (re:Work, n.d.)

In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, he stated that physical needs must first be fulfilled before moving up to the next levels. Employers need to ensure their employees’ basic needs are met before safety, especially psychological safety can be met. To create psychological safety, leaders can ensure they create an environment that allows genuine listening and respect. Coyle (2018) suggests leaders can do the following to enhance psychological safety (The Culture Code includes additional ideas):

  1. “Overcommunicate Your Listening” – Leaders should physically show that they are listening through eye contact, physical and verbal cues that they understand, an alert listening posture, and avoiding interruptions.
  2. “Spotlight Your Fallibility Early On” – Leaders must admit that they do not know everything. They can find opportunities to invite input and admit their mistakes.
  3. “Embrace the Messenger” – Many leaders make the mistake of reacting negatively when they receive bad news. Employees should not be scared of sharing bad news. Sharing bad news is better than hiding it. 
  4. “Overdo Thank-Yous” – Showing gratitude is a great way to develop relationships and encourage cooperation among team members. 
  5. “Make Sure Everyone Has a Voice” – Giving employees a voice is difficult to accomplish but is certainly worth the effort.    

Leaders might consider asking their employees the following questions:

  1. How well does your supervisor listen to you?
  2. How well do your team members listen to you?
  3. How able are you to share opinions without fear of embarrassment, humiliation, or retribution?
  4. How well does the team manage conflict when there are differing opinions?

To learn more, I encourage you to read “What is psychological safety at work?” by the Center for Creative Leadership. 

Psychological safety will result in organizations with stronger employee engagement, employee retention, and a more innovative culture. How psychologically safe does your team feel? We regularly work with leaders and organizations to enhance leadership and culture. Some of our popular services include leadership coaching and meeting facilitation. If you are interested in learning more about our services, please contact us


Coyle, D. (2018). The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups. Bantam Books.

re:Work. (n.d.). Guide: Understand team effectiveness.