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ATD Blog

The Number 1 Predictor of Team Effectiveness: Psychological Safety

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Psychological safety, like anything, can be misconstrued or, even worse, weaponized. Our industry takes beautiful concepts and ruins them. For example, look at what we did with the idea of radical candor: We twisted it into the belief that being a radically opinionated leader—indifferent to other people’s feelings—is okay. Let’s not do that to psychological safety. It’s too important.

Unfortunately, psychological safety frequently gets mentioned with no grace or understanding of how hard it is to build it within a team. So, let’s strip it down to its core.

Amy Edmondson wrote a book on the subject called The Fearless Organization. If you’re interested in investing in psychological safety (and you should be), read it. The top researcher on the subject, Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

Think of a team you are a part of. In that group, do you feel comfortable speaking up to everyone about tough issues without fear of repercussions? Do you ever go home wishing you could have said something, but you didn’t because you didn’t know how everyone would react?

No one in a group will risk being authentic and vulnerable unless they believe they won’t be penalized or ridiculed for showing up as their true selves, speaking up, and making mistakes. This is psychological safety. It’s the key ingredient to unleashing human potential.

My Team’s Journey to Psychological Safety

It took 18 months of leading in an inclusive and empathetic way to get my team at DX Learning to be in a place where they openly spoke up and gave me, as well as each other, the candid feedback we needed to grow and develop.

I’d like to say we are a high-performing team that is willing to be vulnerable, openly share our mistakes and failures, and talk about what is working and what is not, but we’re not there quite yet. There’s a mutually understood and encouraged expectation that we speak up. We all have a voice, and silence is not something you hear often on our team calls.

Trust me; it is extremely difficult to create this level of safety. This doesn’t just happen with a snap of your fingers. It’s a deliberate leader-led strategy to create a culture of psychological safety, and it needs buy-in from the whole team to work.


Our organization’s dedication to psychologically safe culture is the reason we survived the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, we lost everything. Our entire business portfolio was in-person leadership training. We lost millions of dollars in a week. Yet, here we are today, stronger than ever.

We were able to rapidly innovate, pivot, and work together to build a new business because of the safety we felt speaking up and sharing ideas about what was working and what was not. We felt comfortable enough to fail quickly and learn.

I couldn’t do it alone; no leader can. I am not a hero, and a solo hero mentality doesn’t work in business. It’s through the power of psychological safety that we succeed.

If you’re thinking that this is all mumbo jumbo, think again. A study at Google called Project Aristotle revealed that psychological safety is the number one predictor of team effectiveness.

It sparks creativity and innovation. It creates an inclusive environment where people have a sense of belonging and feel free to be their true, authentic selves. Work becomes a safe space where good talent is curated, nurtured, and kept. You don’t lose good employees to other opportunities when psychological safety is an organizational asset.


Defining Characteristics of Psychological Safety

Let’s start by understanding what psychological safety is not. Psychological safety is not a scenario where employees and leaders

  • Share the first thing that comes into their minds.
  • Remove all emotional filters.
  • Curate a nice, fluffy environment where no one gets their feelings hurt.
  • Try out every idea presented and hope things will work out.
  • Tolerate everything and everyone.

Psychological safety occurs when

  • Everyone feels free to share their thoughts without the risk of repercussions. It’s about humans being able to express their concerns freely to leaders and co-workers outside of their daily circles.
  • The boss sets an example by demonstrating behaviors that deliberately lead to psychological safety and expects others to follow suit. This leads to an environment where the team members are at cognitive ease.
  • People feel safe taking calculated risks that they have given significant thought to. Everything becomes a possibility, and innovative ideals flow freely.

Get to Psychological Safety With CARE

Now that we have clarity on what psychological safety is and is not, let’s look at the ways to create a psychologically safe environment. To achieve psychological safety, a team must CARE for one another, which they achieve through clarity, autonomy, relationships, and equity.

  • Clarity: Team members create a safe space for each other when they are on the same page, their expectations are crystal clear, and there is little to no ambiguity.
  • Autonomy: Teams are more likely to feel safe when they have freedom to make decisions, trust to map out their method of executing clear goals, and autonomy to achieve those goals.
  • Relationships: Co-workers who are curious about each other beyond the work they do, value each other as human beings, and express empathy are more likely to feel safe with each other.
  • Equity: A team that uses the clarity it develops, the autonomy it is given, and the relationships it forms as data points to provide the resources and attention to those that need it most creates a sense of fairness and equity and are more likely to feel safe, as a result.

This is what I mean by CARE. If a leader and the team they lead care consistently for each other over a long period of time, then psychological safety will flourish.

In short, clarity plus autonomy combined with relationships lead to equitable teaming and a culture where psychological safety flourishes.

For a deeper dive, check out my session during the ATD 2022 International Conference & EXPO, “How to Create Highly Effective Psychologically Safe Teams."

About the Author

Alex Draper has been a leading force in experiential learning design and delivery since 2002. As the founder of DX Learning, he is on a mission to disrupt the leadership development industry with science-based methodologies that drive leadership self-awareness and psychological safety that solve organizational challenges. Alex has inspired leadership professionals at all levels at Fortune 500 conferences like Allstate, Flowserve, and Takeda, and has presented at ATD’s 2018 and 2019 conferences.

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