How Psychological Safety Creates the Best Teams: A Deep Dive

In today‘s fast-paced, innovation-driven business landscape, organizations are increasingly relying on teams to solve complex problems, generate fresh ideas, and stay ahead of the curve. But what separates high-performing teams from those that struggle to make progress? According to a growing body of research, the answer lies in psychological safety.

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is the shared belief among team members that the group is a safe place for interpersonal risk-taking. When psychological safety is high, people feel comfortable speaking up, asking questions, admitting mistakes, and challenging the status quo without fear of being punished, ridiculed, or blamed.

As Dr. Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor who pioneered the concept, explains:

Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It is a shared understanding that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.

In other words, psychological safety creates an environment where people can bring their full selves to work, engage in candid conversations, and collaborate generously towards shared goals.

The Research on Psychological Safety and Team Performance

The link between psychological safety and team effectiveness is not just a feel-good theory – it‘s backed by a growing body of research. One of the most compelling studies on the topic is Google‘s famous Project Aristotle, which analyzed data from hundreds of the company‘s teams to uncover the secrets of high performance.

After examining over 250 team attributes, Project Aristotle researchers found that psychological safety was the single most important factor predicting team success. As Julia Rozovsky, a people analytics manager at Google, explained in a blog post:

The researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together. In order of importance:

  1. 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.

Additional research has linked psychological safety to a host of positive team outcomes, including:

  • Increased innovation and creativity: A study by Baer and Frese (2003) found that in companies with high levels of psychological safety, employees were more likely to come up with creative ideas and implement innovative solutions.

  • Better problem-solving and decision-making: Research by Edmondson (1999) showed that teams with high psychological safety were more likely to engage in productive conflict, share information openly, and arrive at better decisions.

  • Higher employee engagement and job satisfaction: A study by Kahn (1990) found that employees who felt psychologically safe were more engaged in their work and reported higher levels of job satisfaction and commitment to their organizations.

  • Improved learning and professional development: Carmeli and Gittell (2009) found that high-quality relationships characterized by psychological safety facilitated learning behaviors such as feedback seeking, experimentation, and discussing errors.

The evidence is clear: psychological safety is not a nice-to-have, but a critical driver of team performance and organizational success.

Psychological Safety in Action: Real-World Examples

To bring the concept of psychological safety to life, let‘s look at a few real-world examples of companies that have successfully cultivated it on their teams.

Pixar Animation Studios

Pixar, the renowned animation studio behind classics like Toy Story and The Incredibles, has long been recognized for its culture of creativity and collaboration. One of the key drivers of Pixar‘s success is its commitment to psychological safety.

As Ed Catmull, Pixar‘s co-founder and former president, explained in his book Creativity, Inc.:

Candor could not occur without safety, and even the most successful filmmakers were sometimes wary of being honest because of how it might affect their movie and their status within the company. But we had to demand candor of them, or we would have wound up with mediocre movies. To get candor, you have to build safety.

Pixar fosters psychological safety through practices like the "Braintrust" – a regular meeting where filmmakers share their works-in-progress and receive candid feedback from their peers. The Braintrust is not about hierarchy or power dynamics, but about creating a safe space for constructive critique and collaborative problem-solving.

Etsy

Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade and vintage goods, has also made psychological safety a cornerstone of its culture. As former Etsy CTO John Allspaw explained in an interview with First Round Review:

One of the things that impedes learning (and therefore progress) is fear. Fear of failure, fear of consequences, fear of looking stupid in front of others. These cultural anti-patterns run very deep and are quite pervasive. They prevent us from doing our best work. They prevent us from being our best selves. And they can make our organizations miserable places to work.

To combat these cultural anti-patterns, Etsy has implemented practices like blameless postmortems, where teams come together after a failure or incident to discuss what happened in a non-judgmental way and identify opportunities for improvement. By framing failures as learning opportunities rather than occasions for finger-pointing, Etsy creates a culture where people feel safe to take risks and admit mistakes.

Google

Of course, no discussion of psychological safety would be complete without mentioning Google, the company that put the concept on the map with Project Aristotle. Since those initial findings, Google has doubled down on its commitment to psychological safety and made it a core part of its management training and team development efforts.

One way Google fosters psychological safety is through its "gTeams" program, which brings together employees from different parts of the company to work on innovative projects outside their normal responsibilities. gTeams are designed to be safe spaces for experimentation and risk-taking, with an emphasis on learning and growth rather than performance and metrics.

As Rozovsky explained in a Harvard Business Review article:

By putting people from different functions on the same team, the gTeams experience replicates the experience of working with people from diverse backgrounds, with diverse skills and expectations. People learn to communicate with teammates who have vastly different knowledge, who solve problems in different ways, and who are focused on different goals. They learn to trust each other because they know that everyone brings distinct and valuable information to the table.

These examples show that psychological safety is not just a theoretical concept, but a powerful tool for driving innovation, collaboration, and performance in real-world teams and organizations.

Building Psychological Safety: Actionable Strategies for Leaders

So, how can leaders foster psychological safety on their own teams? Here are some research-backed strategies to try:

  1. Frame work as a learning problem, not an execution problem. When leaders emphasize learning and experimentation over flawless execution, they create an environment where people feel safe to take risks and make mistakes.

  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility. When leaders admit their own mistakes and limitations, they model vulnerability and create space for others to do the same.

  3. Invite participation and dissent. Leaders should actively seek out input and feedback from all team members, especially those who may be hesitant to speak up. Encourage people to challenge ideas and offer alternative perspectives.

  4. Respond productively to ideas and concerns. When team members do speak up, leaders should listen actively, ask questions, and provide constructive feedback. Avoid shutting down or dismissing ideas outright.

  5. Measure psychological safety regularly. Use anonymous surveys or other tools to gauge the level of psychological safety on your team over time. Look for patterns and trends, and take action to address any issues that arise.

By implementing these strategies consistently and intentionally, leaders can create the conditions for psychological safety to thrive on their teams.

The Risks of Ignoring Psychological Safety

While the benefits of psychological safety are clear, it‘s also important to understand the risks of failing to prioritize it. When psychological safety is low or absent, teams can fall into a number of counterproductive patterns, such as:

  • Self-censorship and conformity: Without psychological safety, team members may be reluctant to voice dissenting opinions or challenge the status quo, leading to groupthink and suboptimal decision-making.

  • Lack of innovation and risk-taking: In a psychologically unsafe environment, people may be hesitant to propose new ideas or experiment with untested approaches, stifling creativity and innovation.

  • Blame and finger-pointing: When mistakes happen in a low-trust environment, team members may be quick to blame each other rather than taking collective responsibility and learning from the experience.

  • Disengagement and turnover: Over time, a lack of psychological safety can lead to disengagement, burnout, and high turnover, as people feel unheard, undervalued, and unable to do their best work.

To avoid these pitfalls and reap the full benefits of psychological safety, leaders must make it a consistent priority and an integral part of their team‘s culture and practices.

Conclusion: Psychological Safety as a Leadership Imperative

In today‘s complex and rapidly changing business environment, organizations can‘t afford to leave psychological safety to chance. Building a culture of trust, inclusion, and open communication must be a top priority for leaders at all levels.

The research is clear: teams with high psychological safety are more innovative, adaptable, and resilient than those without it. They surface the best ideas, take smart risks, and turn failures into opportunities for growth and improvement.

But psychological safety doesn‘t happen by accident – it requires intentional effort and sustained commitment from leaders. By modeling vulnerability, inviting participation, and responding productively to ideas and concerns, leaders can create the conditions for psychological safety to thrive on their teams.

Ultimately, psychological safety is about recognizing the fundamental humanity of the people we work with. It‘s about creating an environment where everyone feels seen, heard, and valued, and where diverse perspectives and experiences are celebrated as sources of strength and innovation.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to build teams that bring out the best in people and enable them to do their best work together. And psychological safety is the foundation on which those teams are built.

So let this be a call to action for leaders everywhere: prioritize psychological safety on your teams. Measure it, nurture it, and protect it fiercely. Your people, your organization, and your own leadership legacy depend on it.