How to recognize the signs of lack of psychological safety in your teams

Bob: “Peter brought up the video team thrashing, eh?”

Me (Wendy): “Yes. We initially started talking about the upcoming facilitation workshop, but it led to that and psychological safety.”

Bob: “So, did he understand what it means?”

Me: “No, but I did give him the definition – it’s the freedom to express ideas and opinions freely without the fear of humiliation or retribution.”

Bob: “Good. So, what’s the context we need to share with Peter so that we set up the stage correctly with him when we have the conversation?”

Me: “I managed to be in one of their meetings and saw some behaviors that were very much red flags. For one, the team lead keeps throwing his title around whenever he tries to make a point. He always says something like, “well, since I’ve been doing this a long time and team lead…””

Bob: “Oh boy! That’s a sure way to kill psychological safety. Let’s list what would happen with low or no psychological safety and see how many items this video production team has on that list.”

Me: “Good idea. So, without psychological safety, people stop asking questions. They stop admitting weaknesses or mistakes. They stop offering new ideas. They refrain from thinking critically and accept the status quo. I think that just about describes the video production team!”

Bob: “Yes! And what managers don’t realize when they’ve broken that psychological safety barrier is that people start to disengage. They want to stay under the radar to protect themselves. I’ve seen organizations where people just do the bare minimum to survive, not create waves, and blend into the background. BTW, this is happening now in a lot of companies. It’s called “Quiet Quitting.” In the end, some of your best employees will become flight risks. And if they leave, well, you now have a bigger problem of having to recruit someone, possibly train them. I’ve seen some companies where a certain position gets advertised every few months because of the lack of psychological safety.”

Me: “Completely agree! But with psychological safety, people will support each other. They are willing to show vulnerability, suggest new ideas, flag sensitive issues, admit mistakes, and debate constructively. That’s how we get engaging teams, and that’s how teams can start to become high-performing.”

Bob: “Indeed! Some management think that they need to rule with fear, that it’s good for employees to have some fear because fear will propel people to work harder and better. What they don’t understand is that management by fear only gives the illusion that goals are being met. In reality, it stifles innovation, creativity, and collaboration needed to respond to this complex and rapidly changing world.”

Read Wendy’s entire story here

If you want to know more about how to apply psychological safety in your day-to-day work, check out the foundation of psychological safety.


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