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Building a high-performing team requires more than great people and clear goals. You need psychological safety. At its core, psychological safety is about trust. Employees are more likely to share creative ideas and take risks when they trust it won't jeopardize their performance or reputation.

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High-performing teams

Great Leaders Do These 3 Things to Foster Psychological Safety

Source: Katie Burke/ Inc.com

Building a high-performing team requires more than great people and clear goals. You need psychological safety. A few years ago, Google discovered that psychological safety was the key ingredient behind effective teams and since then, leaders have been eager to foster it within their own organisations.

At its core, psychological safety is about trust. Employees are more likely to share creative ideas and take risks when they trust it won’t jeopardize their performance or reputation. It’s one thing to tell our teams to “fail fast, fail often”, but how leaders actually react to mistakes is what matters. That’s why it’s not a coincidence that psychological safety and high-performance are correlated; teams with a foundation of trust are more empowered to be autonomous and challenge the status quo than those without one.

I think it’s critical for leaders to reflect on psychological safety within their teams now more than ever, as organizations prioritize diversity and remote work in their hiring efforts. Building trust online requires a different approach than it does in an office, and if microaggressions aren’t being addressed in your workplace, then it will be even harder for underrepresented minorities to feel empowered. Simply put: You can’t have psychological safety without an inclusive culture– and vice versa.

To start, here are three ways I’ve seen leaders effectively build trust:

1. They ask their teams what they need to be successful.
Have you ever asked your direct reports how they like to receive feedback? Do you know how they like to be recognized, or when they’re most productive? If not, it’s a good time to ask. Understanding how individuals work best will not only help you adapt your management style across the team, but it also signals to your team that their voices matter.

I recommend asking new hires a series of questions about how they like to work as part of onboarding so that from day one, they know their opinion is valued and you can start building a relationship from a place of trust. Keep in mind, if you’re going to ask about their preferences and work styles, you need to follow through and act on it in how you lead and manage.

2. They lead with vulnerability.
Fear is the enemy of psychological safety– fear that we’ll say the wrong thing during a meeting, or be judged for recommending a bad idea. Imposter syndrome is even more prevalent for junior employees, and for women of colour in the workplace.
To challenge that sense of fear, leaders need to get vulnerable. Sharing our own mistakes and recognizing where we need to improve aren’t signs of weakness. I share my performance review, including things I would have done better, with my entire global team, along with a summary of my upward feedback. Doing so sets the tone that failure is an opportunity to grow and that the goal is progress, not perfection.

One of my favourite thought leaders on this topic is Brené Brown, who said, “Inspired leadership requires vulnerability: Do we have the courage to show up, be seen, take risks, ask for help, own our mistakes, learn from failure, lean into joy, and can we support the people around us in doing the same?” There’s a reason her TEDTalk on vulnerability has 52 million views; that courage from leadership leads to more psychologically safe teams.

3. They ask one simple question and listen to the answer.
One approach for building an inclusive, psychologically safe team environment is asking one question at the start of meetings: How are you feeling?
This question, inspired by The Energy Project, is simple yet powerful. By encouraging employees to openly and honestly share their emotions (in as little or as much detail as they’re comfortable with), leaders create space for connecting on a human-to-human level.
Starting with this question in my weekly team meetings helps me understand the energy in the room (or Zoom), and hear what’s bringing my direct reports joy or stress that week outside of work. Especially for caregivers and parents during the pandemic, creating space for acknowledging distractions or frustrations is critical if we truly want to make ‘bringing your full self to work’ a reality.
Leading with vulnerability and creating space for employees’ voices can help leaders build trust. But it’s also important to dedicate time to practicing psychological safety so that your approach is evolving as your team does. That might mean holding recurring time on your calendar to read and learn more on inclusive management, scheduling an offsite for your team to learn each other’s work styles, or designating time during your 1-1s to ask your direct reports for feedback.

What matters is that you make psychological safety a priority so that your team feels empowered to do their best work.

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