Create Psychological Safety

Psychological safety describes a work environment where team members, regardless of status, are able to share ideas, theories, and proposals free from fear of criticism or reprisal. A two-year study at Google found that psychological safety was a critical component for team success.1 You can’t create it overnight, but you can start heading in that direction today.

Psychological safety is not the end goal. It enables reaching the end goals of improved value delivery, predictability, and developer thriving.

Pain Points

  • Lack of innovation
  • Everyone continues to run into common problems
  • Team members are unengaged
  • Folks are afraid to speak up, and do not offer ideas
  • Developers feel they should “just do what you’re told”
  • There’s no reporting of problems or issues
  • Fear of admitting to mistakes or errors
  • Team members don’t trust each other and don’t trust management
  • Team’s often find themselves “stuck” and wait for management direction


Psychological safety is a critical ingredient of high-performing software development organizations. It enables teams to grow, to think, innovate and adapt to changing circumstances and business climates. It moves decision-making away from the view of a single individual and toward one of a more diverse and nuanced perspective. Benefits include:

  • Greatly reduces the risk of failure
  • Supports creation of a learning culture leading to teams being able to learn from mistakes (one of our best teachers)
  • Fosters an enhanced sense of value for employees as they feel their input is always welcomed and valued
  • Empowers teams to think and adapt to differing conditions or changes and fosters innovative thinking


  • Individuals feel free to offer opinions and ask questions without fear of embarrassment or reprisal (Major Boost)
  • Individuals can report errors, omissions, mistakes without any fear of embarrassment, reprisal, loss of face (Major Boost)
  • Individuals can safely say “I don’t know” instead of remaining quiet or feeling pressured to reply (Boost)
  • Individuals will not speak up or offer opinions (Significant Setback)
  • Individuals bully others (Disaster)


✓ Critical ❑ Helpful ❑ Experimental

Adoption Experiment

Do the following steps to get started.


  1. Be curious, not judgmental
  2. Chose neutral or positive words; study not investigate, accident not failure when discussing
  3. Demonstrate openness to new ideas, engage in active listening
  4. Emphasize learning and progress


  1. Create a plan to build psychological safety using the steps in “What Does it Look like”
  2. Use After Action Reviews daily, on delivery, and after an incident to highlight accountability and reinforce psychological safety

Evaluate Feedback

  1. Use anonymous surveys to ask if the following conditions are being met:
    • It’s easy to speak up on any topic
    • Differences in opinion are welcome, openly and candidly discussed
    • People value new ideas
    • There is time in the schedule for personal and group reflection via ContinuousReview
    • Management invites feedback and new ideas2

What Does it Look Like?

Psychological safety is not your goal. Your goal is to ship value sooner to your users.3. Better performance supports your goal of shipping value sooner to your users.

An idea how to do this

The following four steps highlight important actions. See the details in our chapter in The GROWS Book, Psychological Support.

Start where you are

AnswersFromExperiments starts with having a base line documenting the current state. Conduct a simple anonymous survey. This provides you with information how employees feel about safety and being valued.

Analyze the results

Perfect results don’t exist. If all the surveys say everyone is absolutely happy and safe, you most likely have a pathological culture. See the Westrum Continuum in InformationFlow.

The survey results will show you where to focus your effort to create psychological safety.

Decide what to do

Using SmallBitesAlways pick area creating the most pain and focus on it. Attempting to change too many things at a time will dilute effort and lead to confusion as people try to figure out what is most important. Or they may pick an area where they are comfortable and avoid the awkward areas that may contain the most leverage for change.


Following the guidelines in AnswersFromExperiements take action. These actions could involve workshops that address values and behaviors, team performance and other relevant topics. Be sure to LeadTheWay. Everyone will be watching to see if your words and actions align.

Rinse and repeat

When it looks like psychological safety has improved, conduct another survey. This provides confirmation on progress. You may learn that progress in one area positively impacts another area. Remember There is no there there. In other words, it is not a destination. It’s a journey that enables improved value delivery.

Beliefs and attitudes create behavior

Culture is defined by the worst behavior tolerated - John Amaechi

To create a psychologically safe work place consider the following attitudes.

Leadership Attitudes

Team leaders and managers, all the way up to senior management, need to adopt and model the following behaviors.

  • Do not tolerate bullying, intimidation, or efforts to shut down people
  • Embrace “I don’t know” as an answer. You do not have all the answers; no one does. Be upfront and admit that yourself, and accept it from others
  • Encourage experiments. Reinforce that no experiments fail, all provide data. Allow and accept risk for the sake of discovery
  • Actively encourage input from all team members. Remember, there are no stupid ideas. Someone made millions off the idea of a tornado filled with sharks
  • Ask questions, especially “How”, “what” not “why”
  • Practice full transparency. Don’t brush aside problems or swoop in to help
  • Trust in the team to organize itself, make decisions, and deliver
  • Keep your eye on the prize: the ultimate goal of the organization is to delight its customers.4
  • Be vigilant and self aware regarding your own attribution and confirmation biases while working with others

Team Attitudes

Team members need to adopt and model the following behavior.

  • Embrace “I don’t know” as an answer. You do not have all the answers; no one does. Be upfront and admit that yourself, and accept it from others
  • Don’t interrupt another speaker
  • Don’t denigrate ideas that seem “bad.” What would have to be true for it to be a good idea?
  • Vigorously debate ideas, not people5
  • Understand the goals of the team and the organization. If not clear, ask and keep asking
  • Focus on the ultimate goals of the team, not individual blame or reward
  • Learn from each other. Teach and share what you know and what you’ve discovered
  • Be vigilant and self aware regarding your own attribution and confirmation biases while working with others

Failure is an integral element of work. It’s critical to learning and progress. If team experiments never fail, you aren’t learning. An experiment is only a failure if you don’t to learn from it.

Embrace Accountability for All

Both managers and team members agree on transparent, two-way accountability. Do not tolerate sub-standard, poor working habits:

  • Do not tolerate bullying, intimidation, or efforts to shut down people
  • Ensure goals are clear. What are the goals for this team (not just deliverables, but purpose. What is the team’s reputation? What are their strengths?)
  • “I don’t know” is welcomed, and must be said. But the team will use experiments to discover possible answers
  • No Broken Windows. Fix known problems quickly to limit collateral damage6
  • No short cuts. Don’t skimp on basic engineering principles: unit tests, encapsulation, release procedures, etc.
  • Ask for Help. Establish a maximum time someone can be stuck on a problem before they are required to ask for help. This principle is not just for developers, but for everyone including managers, sales, QA, designers, marketing, etc.

Accountability vs. Psychological Safety

Psychological safety enables and embraces high performance standards. Amy Edmondson’s work on Psychological Safety7 identifies four zones of behavior based on the level of accountability and motivation vs. the amount of perceived psychological safety:


The shift from an Anxiety ridden to a Learning organization happens by growing psychological safety.

## Warning Signs

  • Knowledge is held “close to the chest”
  • Information gets hoarded and used for leverage
  • Teams try to figure out what leaders want to hear before speaking out
  • No feedback from each other, from the customers, from management
  • Going around in circles
  • Getting stuck, unable to make a decision

Growth Path

The full set of learning habits in The GROWS Method® will help form a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle. Psychological Safety is one of the necessary conditions in order for any of the other habits to succeed. But once you have it, the other habits will encourage and increase safety, which will encourage and increase learning, and ultimately increase team and organizational effectiveness.8

How to Fail Spectacularly

  • Proclaim the workplace to be “Psychologically Safe” but don’t change anything
  • Insist on honesty and a focus on team goals but retain individual-based performance reviews, evaluation and compensation plans
  • Don’t allow experimentation or risk
  • Enforcing the same culture and expectations across different teams

  ←Prev (Agree to Try)(Remove Proxies to People) Next→

  1. Accelerate [(Forsgren et al., 2018)

  2. For a more thorough survey instrument, see examples at 

  3. Psychological safety enables better performance[(Edmondson, 2019)

  4. The Age of Agile [(Denning, 2018)

  5. Beware of the Fundamental Attribution Error 

  6. The Pragmatic Programmer [(Thomas & Hunt, 2020)

  7. The Fearless Organization [(Edmondson, 2019)

  8. The Fearless Organization [(Edmondson, 2019)]. 

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