A culture that fosters PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY reduces unnecessary stress

December 19, 2019
Stress and Work

When it comes to stress at work, there are two types of stress: “good” work-related stress that’s a natural part of the creative tension at play during work; and “bad” stress that comes from toxic management and a company culture that makes you feel unsafe. The second type could and should be avoided. It boils down to creating a culture that fosters psychological safety, so that people can actually focus on their work and stop wasting time worrying about the wrong things.


Psychological safety is defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career”. It is “a condition in which you feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo — all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalised or punished in some way” (Timothy R Clark, cited in Wikipedia). In short it is the shared belief that the team is safe to take the necessary risks to do its best work.


Teams that are psychologically safe are also more emotionally intelligent, more creative and more innovative. When they feel safe, people express more of their feelings, listen to others and feel listened to, and pay more attention to their emotions and those of others. They are more innovative because they feel free to suggest ideas and take risks without the fear of being embarrassed by the group.


That’s the subject of Daniel Coyle’s remarkable book The Culture Code, in which he explains that our brains are wired to crave all the “belonging cues” that the group can provide. These cues create an environment that feels safe. They must possess three qualities: 1. energy (in each exchange), 2. individualisation (each person is unique and valued), and 3. future orientation (with signals that the relationship will continue). Thus these cues tell our hyper-vigilant brains that they can stop worrying and shift into connection mode. Team cohesion depends on team members sending regular signals of safe connection.


How can you create a culture that fosters psychological safety? Daniel Coyle as well as Liz Fosslien and Molly West Duffy, the authors of No Hard Feelings, suggest it’s ultimately about the “little things”: “emotional culture cascades from you: why small actions make a big difference” (No Hard Feelings).


Here are 9 things you can do to improve psychological safety for your team:


  1. Acknowledge personal lives: understanding what people are going through makes it easier to treat them with empathy. Without invading their privacy, you can make room for their personal constraints.
  2. Share meals: “eating together has a long, primal tradition as a kind of social glue.” There are few things that are as beneficial to team cohesion and belonging.
  3. Create a sense of belonging with microactions—small positive actions you can take, like: having coffee with a person you don’t know well, helping a new employee get to know others, not multitasking when somebody speaks to you…
  4. Focus on onboarding: a warm welcome goes a long way. New recruits get to know from the start how they can contribute to the psychological safety of others. A system of “culture buddies” can be of great help for new hires to understand the culture.
  5. Ask clarifying questions to make it okay for others to do the same (for example, when somebody uses jargon or an acronym). Pretending to know something is one of the most easily avoidable sources of stress!
  6. Suggest a bad ideas brainstorm for team members to throw out purposefully absurd ideas. The exercise takes pressure off and helps people be more adventurous. And it’s fun (laughing is amazing to fight stress!).
  7. Create team agreements, lists of ground rules for how people should treat one another.
  8. Accept that there will be fights and make them good ones: by understanding your biases, inviting structured criticism, conducting postmortems.
  9. Let go of the jerks even if they seem to be high performers: “Jerks undermine psychological safety by preying on vulnerability and leaving others feeling belittled and deenergized”.