Cultivating Psychological Safety in Leadership

What does it truly mean to have psychological safety in the workplace and why do so many organizations struggle to create psychologically safe environments?

According to research released last fall by Wiley, only 53% of individual contributors and 55% of supervisors say they feel safe taking risks at their organizations. Risk taking is a required component of creativity, problem solving, and innovation, that can be concerning depending on the requirements of the job or the industry one is in.

In this episode of Women Taking the Lead, we delve into the concept of psychological safety, its profound impact on team performance, the essential behaviors for creating psychological safety, and strategies to overcome challenges.

Click the play button to listen to the podcast episode.

Definition of Psychological Safety

The term, psychological safety, was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson in 1999. Psychological safety goes beyond physical safety. It’s about creating an environment where team members feel comfortable being themselves, expressing their thoughts and ideas, taking risks, and making mistakes without fear of judgment or reprisal.

I want to put an emphasis on team here because psychological safety is not about one person feeling open to express their ideas and the space to make mistakes. It’s about creating the environment for everyone on the team and in the organization to feel this way.

And before the word feel makes anyone think this is a fluffy nice-to-have quality in an organization, it is a critical quality that impacts overall organizational performance.

Let’s also point out what psychological safety is not. It’s not about being comfortable all of the time. To grow, our team members need to have opportunities to stretch themselves, to adapt their preferences to others, and to live with some unpredictability. But in that discomfort, there is a certainty that they are supported, appreciated, and respected. They have the space to grow and learn and adapt.

Impact on Team Performance

Psychological safety has a significant impact on team performance. The sense of safety allows for open and honest communication, which is essential for team cohesion and performance.

When team members feel safe speaking up and sharing their perspectives, it fosters creativity, innovation, and problem-solving. Teams with high psychological safety are more likely to experiment, collaborate effectively, engage in healthy conflict, which leads to better decision-making. They are also more likely to learn from both successes and failures. This leads to improved outcomes, resiliency, and adaptability.

Lastly, according to the Harvard Business Review, “research has shown the incredible downsides of not having psychological safety, including negative impacts on employee well-being, including stress, burnout, and turnover, as well as on the overall performance of the organization.”

How to Create Psychological Safety

Despite all the benefits of psychological safety, it is not a given and a McKinsey Global Survey conducted during the pandemic indicated that the behaviors that create a psychologically safe environment are few and far between in leadership teams and organizations more broadly.

And yet, leaders play a vital role in creating and maintaining psychological safety within their teams. Organizations can infuse psychological safety in their cultures by training leaders to:

Have clear norms, expectations, and accountability.

This mitigates subjective evaluations, unfair favoritism, and chaos in the work environment.  It’s important for teams to have a sense of fairness and predictability. Co-create with your team members what success looks like and help them get there.

Encourage open communication.

Creating channels for team members to voice their opinions, ideas, and concerns freely.

Listen actively.

Paying attention to what team members say and demonstrating empathy and understanding.

Value diverse perspectives and explaining why it matters.

Recognize and appreciate the different backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints that team members bring to the table. Also, to overcome a natural instinct to stay safe by being silent, explain why it’s so important to have everyone’s perspective and how it will impact the outcome of the work the team does together.

Provide both constructive and positive feedback.

Offering feedback in a respectful and supportive manner, focusing on areas for improvement while also acknowledging strengths. Rather than asking, “What went wrong?”, ask, “What did you learn?”

Celebrate calculated risk-taking and demonstrate it yourself. Highlight the benefits of learning from mistakes and build “lessons learned” debriefing sessions into every project.

Modeling vulnerability.

Showing vulnerability as a leader by admitting mistakes, seeking input from others, and being open to feedback and change.

The training must be experiential, have an emotional impact, and allow for reflection and immediate application in the leader’s day-to-day work.  Most important, the training needs to start with the leaders at the very top of the organization and then trickle down. If senior leaders are not actively modeling and fostering psychological safety the culture won’t change – no matter how much time, money and other resources you throw at it.

Handling Challenges to Psychological Safety

Leaders may encounter challenges in establishing psychological safety, especially in environments with a history of competitiveness or where stereotypes and biases exist. To address these challenges:

  • Promote inclusivity: Create a culture that values diversity and inclusion, where everyone feels valued and respected.
  • Address bias and stereotypes: Challenge and mitigate biases and stereotypes that may affect team dynamics and individual confidence.
  • Advocate for work-life balance: Support policies and practices that promote work-life balance, well-being, and mental health, as these factors contribute to a sense of safety and trust.

Does Your Workplace Uphold Psychological Safety?

A simple 7-item questionnaire was designed by Edmonson to assess the perception of psychological safety.

How would you answer these questions?

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, will it be held against you?
  2. Are the members of this team able to bring up problems and tough issues?
  3. Do members on this team sometimes reject other members for being different?
  4. Is it safe to take a risk on this team?
  5. Is it difficult to ask other members of this team for help?
  6. Would anyone on the team deliberately act in a way that undermines efforts?
  7. Working with members of this team, are unique skills and talents valued and utilized?

Continuous Improvement Toward Psychological Safety

Building and maintaining psychological safety is an ongoing process. Regularly assess a team’s dynamics, gather feedback from team members, and take proactive steps to address any issues or concerns that may arise. This includes fostering a culture of transparency, trust, and accountability, where everyone feels empowered to contribute and grow.

Thank you!

Thank you so much for listening to the Women Taking the Lead podcast. Not yet subscribed to the podcast? Hit the follow or subscribe button so you don’t miss out on the upcoming episodes. And if you know anyone else who can benefit from this episode, please share it with them.

If you are looking for leadership development opportunities for yourself, your team or your organization, reach out to me. We can customize a program that meets your specific needs. You can reach me at

As always, I hope this was of value to you and here’s to your success!


Connect with Jodi Flynn on LinkedIn:

Leadership Coaching. Let’s chat about what you want to accomplish and discover if my coaching process is a fit.

Apply to be on an “On-Air Coaching” episode. Are you a female leader who has been promoted in the last year? Apply to be on the podcast.

Saboteur Assessment: Find out which Saboteurs are impacting your performance, wellness and relationships, and how they do it.

Leadership Operating System Inventory. Wondering what kind of Leadership traits you have? Take this FREE, FAST self-assessment and find out more about yourself as a Leader.

Accomplished: How to Go from Dreaming to Doing. A simple, step by step system that gives you the foundational structure to take your goals and make them happen.

Subscribe to Women Taking the Lead

If you enjoyed this episode, do one of the following. Subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, iHeart Radio, Stitcher Radio, Amazon Music or Pandora and never miss out!