Leaders can make or break a team. For people and teams to perform at their best they need to feel psychologically safe.

“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”. Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School Professor.

In a psychologically safe work environment, people accept the fact that they do not need to be the ‘expert in the room’. People are willing to learn, to connect, and are not concerned with looking good (Lagace, 2018).

The leader is key to creating this environment of safety, but a survey conducted by McKinsey & Company (2021) found that only a small amount of leaders actually exhibit behaviours related to psychological safety, putting teams at risk of becoming toxic.

In a toxic workplace environment, people do not feel comfortable speaking up and they are afraid that they may be mocked or ignored (Moseley, n.d.). Working in a toxic environment can have a negative impact on our mental health and therefore, it is important to consider how leaders can have an impact on creating psychologically safe work environments, where their employees feel valued, appreciated, motivated and can work to the best of their abilities.

 The 7 Things Leaders can do to create Psychologically Safe Teams

There are several steps that leaders can take to help their teams feel psychologically safe:

1.      Provide a sense of safety, as well as regularly demonstrate strong ethics (Giles, 2016). By doing this, they create an environment that feels safe and where people feel they can trust others.

2.      Let employees organise themselves. Giles (2016) notes: “Research has repeatedly shown that empowered teams are more productive and proactive, provide better customer service, and show higher levels of job satisfaction and commitment to their team and organization.” Therefore, allowing employees to organise themselves will let them feel more empowered and in control of themselves, their work, and their outcomes.

3.      Help to create the correct mindset within teams. Focus on the company climate and role model empowering behaviours (McKinsey & Company, 2021).

4.      Be accessible and personally involved. This can encourage employees to learn, motivate them to speak up and can avoid those who have more power from over-utilising it (Edmondson, 2002).

5.      Be a servant leader. Using this method of leadership can promote wellbeing and development (Greenleaf, 1977, cited in Hirak, Peng, Cameli, & Schaubroeck, 2012).

6.      Promote healthy conflict. When debating conflict in a healthy way, it makes colleagues feel that their ideas are being respected, and not judged (Attfield, n.d.)

7.      Create a sense of empowerment. Teams that feel empowered exhibit higher levels of job satisfaction, productivity, proactivity and are more committed to their team and their organisation (Giles, 2016).

By following these 7 steps leaders can support their teams and create and nurture a psychologically safe workplace environment. While these are not easy things to do, the end result is worth the challenge.

Zircon BeTalent created the BeTalent Psychological Safety Questionnaire. This questionnaire enables individuals and teams to understand the current levels of psychological safety in their organisations, and to identity possible development opportunities to create a psychologically safe work environment. For more information please contact Amanda.potter@zircon-mc.co.uk or Jessica.Nelkin@zircon-mc.co.uk.

This post was written by Jess Nelkin and Dr Amanda Potter, from Zircon BeTalent. They are an exhibitor on the HRTech247 Talent & Performance Management floor of the Technology Hall. You can visit their virtual space here.


Attfield, B. (n.d.). 7 ways to create psychological safety in your workplace. Retrieved from Jostle Blog : https://blog.jostle.me/blog/7-ways-to-create-psychological-safety-in-your-workplace

Edmondson, A. C. (2002). Managing the risk of learning: Psychological safety in work teams. Cambridge, MA: Division of Research, Harvard Business School.

Giles, S. (2016). The Most Important Leadership Competencies, According to Leaders Around the World. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2016/03/the-most-important-leadership-competencies-according-to-leaders-around-the-world

Hirak, R., Peng, A. C., Cameli, A., & Schaubroeck, J. M. (2012). Linking leader inclusiveness to work unit performance: The importance of psychological safety and learning from failures. The Leadership Quarterly, 23(1), 107-117.

Lagace, M. (2018). Make Your Employees Feel Psychologically Safe. Retrieved from Working Knowledge Business Research for Business Leaders : https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/make-your-employees-psychologically-safe

McKinsey. (2021). Psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development. Retrieved from McKinsey & Company: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/psychological-safety-and-the-critical-role-of-leadership-development

Moseley, C. (n.d.). How to cope with a psychologically unsafe workplace . Retrieved from Jostle Blog : https://blog.jostle.me/blog/how-to-cope-with-a-psychologically-unsafe-workplace