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​​Imagine working in an environment where you feel safe to voice your opinions, take risks, and be your authentic self. Now picture this in the context of project teams, where innovative ideas and collaborative efforts drive success. This is the essence of psychological safety, a crucial element that can make or break project performance. 

While business and organizations yearn for “can do” leaders who get things done—and this is still a critical need—the top end results come from teams who are fearless in bringing their fullest selves and ideas to the table. 

It’s all about the environment you create as a leader to enable these dynamics to flourish. If you want this kind of edge in your project leadership, read on. 

What Is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is the unwavering belief that you won't be punished or ridiculed for sharing your thoughts, concerns, or even making mistakes. 

In a work environment, it’s the foundation upon which high-performing teams are built, and it's an environment that encourages open communication, trust, and collaboration, ultimately leading to innovation and higher project success rates.

Why Is Psychological Safety Important?

In the quest for innovation and excellence, even tech giants like Google realized that psychological safety was not just a buzzword, but a critical factor in project success.

In the early 2010s, Google embarked on a project codenamed "Project Aristotle." 

Their mission? To identify the factors that distinguished high-performing teams from the rest. After conducting extensive research and analyzing a myriad of team dynamics, they stumbled upon an eye-opening discovery.

One of the key differentiators was psychological safety. Teams where members felt safe to express their ideas without fear of criticism or judgment consistently outperformed others. These psychologically safe teams were more likely to experiment, take risks, and innovate.

The statistics were staggering:

  • Teams with high psychological safety achieved 10 times more patents than teams without it.
  • Turnover rates in psychologically safe teams were significantly lower, saving Google millions in recruitment and training costs.
  • These teams also reported higher job satisfaction, contributing to a more positive company culture.

Google's Project Aristotle revealed that psychological safety wasn't just a feel-good concept; it had a substantial impact on the bottom line. It became clear that fostering an environment where team members felt safe to contribute their ideas was a game-changer for project management.

This case study underscores that psychological safety is not a soft skill but a strategic advantage. It can drive innovation, reduce turnover, and enhance overall project performance, making it a vital aspect of successful project management.

Benefits of Psychological Safety in Project Teams

Psychological safety isn't just a workplace buzzword; it's a transformative force that can significantly influence project outcomes. Here are six compelling ways in which psychological safety impacts project performance:

Enhances Creativity and Innovation

When team members feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to share unconventional ideas and take creative risks. This freedom to innovate can lead to groundbreaking solutions and fresh perspectives that drive project success. In fact, studies have shown that psychologically safe teams are twice as likely to be rated as highly innovative by their peers and supervisors.

Research conducted by Harvard Business Review reveals that teams with high psychological safety generate 50% more innovative ideas than those without it. This influx of creativity can lead to measurable outcomes such as a 20% increase in patented solutions or a 15% reduction in time-to-market for new products.

Fosters Communication and Collaboration

In psychologically safe environments, team members are more willing to engage in open and honest communication. They freely exchange feedback, share knowledge, and collaborate effectively. This transparent dialogue leads to better problem-solving, streamlined processes, and ultimately, improved project outcomes.

Try these communication strategies in project management to help create psychological safety.

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Reduces Fear of Failure

Fear of failure can paralyze teams and hinder progress. Psychological safety mitigates this fear by assuring team members that mistakes are opportunities for growth, not reasons for punishment. Consequently, teams are more likely to take calculated risks, experiment with new approaches, and learn from setbacks, ultimately improving project resilience.

This bold approach can lead to measurable results like a 15% expansion in project scope or a 25% reduction in the occurrence of costly errors.

Increases Engagement and Productivity

Team members who feel psychologically safe are more engaged in their work. They are motivated to contribute their best efforts, which translates into increased productivity. Research has shown that employees in psychologically safe environments are 76% more engaged than those who don't feel safe speaking up.

A Gallup study demonstrates that engaged employees in psychologically safe environments can increase their productivity by 20%. This boost in productivity translates directly to improvements in project delivery timelines and overall efficiency.

Creates Trust and Cohesion

Psychological safety fosters trust among team members. When trust is present, teams can work cohesively, leveraging each other's strengths and supporting one another. This unity enhances team morale and resilience, ensuring that projects continue to progress even in the face of challenges.

Teams with high psychological safety are 25% more likely to collaborate effectively. Tangible outcomes include a 15% reduction in project-related conflicts and a 10% increase in shared responsibility, contributing to projects meeting or surpassing their goals.

Improves Decision-Making

In psychologically safe teams, decision-making processes are more robust. Team members from diverse backgrounds and with different perspectives are more likely to voice their opinions and contribute to the decision-making process. This leads to well-informed decisions that consider a broader range of factors, reducing the risk of costly errors.

The Harvard Business Review also found that projects benefit measurably from this, experiencing a 10% reduction in decision-related errors and a 20% increase in project adaptability. These advantages ensure teams can respond effectively to changing circumstances, contributing to project success.

How To Promote Psychological Safety In Project Teams: 10 Examples

Promoting psychological safety within your project teams requires a considered approach and practical actions—it doesn’t just happen automatically on the back of good intent! Let's dive into each step with specific steps to guide you effectively:

1. Lead by Example

As the project leader, role modeling vulnerability, with appropriate professional boundaries, is the cornerstone of creating psychological safety. Share personal experiences and challenges openly with your team. 

During meetings or one-on-one interactions, recount instances where you've faced setbacks and what you've learned from them. By doing so, you set an example that encourages team members to be equally open about their own experiences and concerns.

For instance, you might say, "In a previous project, I made a decision that didn't work out well, and here's what I learned from it. I want you all to feel comfortable sharing your experiences, even if they involve mistakes."

2. Establish Clear Expectations

Creating a psychologically safe environment begins with setting clear expectations for behavior and communication. Define ground rules that emphasize respect, active listening, and non-judgmental responses. Share these expectations in a team meeting and create a document that everyone can refer to when needed.

For instance, you could establish a ground rule that everyone should have an opportunity to speak during meetings without interruption. Reinforce these expectations consistently through team reminders and by addressing any deviations promptly.

3. Encourage Open Communication

Encouraging open communication is pivotal in fostering psychological safety. Implement regular team check-ins, ideally on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, where each member is encouraged to share updates, challenges, and concerns.

Make it a point to ask questions during these sessions, actively listen to responses, and create an environment where team members feel heard and valued.

You can initiate a check-in by saying, "Let's go around and each share one challenge we're facing this week. This is a safe space to discuss any issues or ideas." Or even designate facilitation and collaboration roles, especially during internal team planning sessions, to really create an effective communication environment.

4. Acknowledge and Reward Contributions

Recognition plays a crucial role in reinforcing psychological safety behaviors. Publicly acknowledge and celebrate instances where team members demonstrate psychological safety. In team meetings or through a team communication channel, highlight specific actions that contribute to the team's safe environment.

For instance, you might say, "I want to commend Sarah for sharing her innovative idea last week. It led to a great solution and exemplifies the kind of open communication we value."

5. Address Incidents Swiftly

While you aim to create a safe environment, incidents of disrespectful or undermining behavior may still occur. It's vital to address such incidents promptly and privately. Schedule one-on-one meetings with involved parties to discuss the issue, emphasizing that such behavior is not aligned with the team's values.

For instance, if one team member belittles another, address it by saying, "Hey, I’m not sure that’s totally appropriate. Let's discuss this privately and find a resolution that maintains our team's commitment to creating a safe environment." 

Find out more about handling tricky conversations effectively here.

6. Foster Trust

You can foster trust by being transparent about decision-making processes. Share the rationale behind significant project decisions and involve the team when appropriate. This transparency reassures team members that their opinions and contributions are valued.

For example, you might explain, "I'd like to involve everyone in the decision-making process for this project milestone. Let's have a brainstorming session to gather diverse perspectives before finalizing our approach."

7. Encourage Feedback Loops

Feedback is a powerful tool for improving psychological safety. Implement regular retrospectives or feedback sessions where team members can openly discuss team dynamics and suggest improvements. Encourage constructive criticism and ensure that the feedback sessions are a safe space for sharing.

Consider using the "Start-Stop-Continue" format, where team members suggest what the team should start doing, stop doing, or continue doing to enhance psychological safety and overall team effectiveness.

8. Provide Training and Resources

Equipping your team with the necessary skills is essential for promoting psychological safety. Organize workshops on conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, and effective communication. These training sessions empower team members to navigate disagreements, express themselves clearly, and build stronger relationships within the team.

For instance, you can bring in a facilitator to conduct a workshop on active listening, providing team members with practical tools for improving their communication skills.

9. Monitor Progress

With the previous steps in place, it’s always a good idea to regularly assess the team's perception of psychological safety is vital. Implement anonymous surveys or feedback mechanisms to gauge the team's comfort level in sharing ideas and concerns. Analyze the data to identify areas for improvement and track progress over time.

Consider using online survey tools like Google Forms or SurveyMonkey to collect anonymous feedback. Share the survey results with the team and discuss action items to address any identified issues.

10. Iterate and Adapt

Creating and maintaining psychological safety is an ongoing process. Embrace a culture of continuous improvement by conducting debriefing sessions after each project or milestone. Discuss what went well in terms of psychological safety and what could be improved.

Encourage team members to share their insights on how to enhance psychological safety further. Celebrate successes and learn from setbacks to refine your approach continuously.

By implementing these practical examples in each step, you can systematically foster psychological safety within your project teams. Remember that consistency and a genuine commitment to creating a safe environment are key to long-term success. 

As psychological safety flourishes, your teams will become more innovative, communicative, and resilient, ultimately leading to improved project performance.

What’s Next?

Have your own strategies for promoting psychological safety? Join the conversation in Slack with 1000's of other digital project managers with DPM Membership!

By Mark Machin

Based in Vancouver, BC, Mark leads the capital projects and infrastructure advisory practice with a major professional services firm. He brings 5+ years of experience in engineering and project management, and a passion for the natural and built environment. His work with projects has taken him all over the world.