Why Psychological Safety Is Essential for High-Performing Teams

What is psychological safety, and why does it matter for startups? Learn what it is, what it looks like, and how you can create more trust to help your team do great work.

5 min
February 28, 2023
Miranda Knudson
Marketing Strategist

Are you experiencing any of these feelings with your team?

  • Meeting discussions are dominated by leaders 
  • Employees are hesitant to ask questions
  • Feedback is not often given or requested
  • Difficult conversations and hot-button topics are avoided
  • Employees don’t often connect on a personal level 

These all may be signs that your team is suffering from a lack of psychological safety. 

The term, coined by Amy Edmonson, professor at Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organization, found that in order for teams to feel respected, included, and heard high levels of psychological safety must exist.

During our last team retreat in Green Bay, Zach Montroy, People, and Team Strategist at Headway walked our crew through a series of exercises to understand better how to create better environments for emotional health in our work.

What we’ll cover

  • What psychological safety is
  • What psychological safety is not
  • Creating psychological safety with your teams
  • The BRAVING Framework by Brené Brown
  • How Headway creates psychological safety for our crew

photo of Zach Montroy leading a psychological safety workshop

So what is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is the feeling of security and acceptance that a person experiences in the workplace. It is the ability to express oneself without fear of judgment or reprimand, take risks, and be creative without fear of failure.

Teams with strong psychological safety are less afraid of the negative consequences that may result from

  • Taking smart risks
  • Making mistakes
  • Sharing their opinions within their team
  • Being candid with one another

“Psychological safety is the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk.”

Amy Edmondson

What psychological safety is not

  • A style or set of personality traits
  • About being soft or kind
  • About lowering expectations on performance

Psychological safety is not something we are, but something we do.

It’s the practice of self-awareness, empathy, and understanding, which will look different for everyone. 

By increasing the feeling of safety for teams to show up authentically, they will inherently feel a greater sense of belonging and feel encouraged to contribute their ideas, questions, and innovative solutions to company challenges, which improves not only individual performance but also the overall success of the organization.

Headway crew speaking openly in a project meeting

What can psychological safety look like?

In his book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, Timothy R. Clark shares a useful framework for understanding and promoting psychological safety in the workplace. The model consists of four stages: 

Inclusion safety

You feel safe to be yourself and are accepted for who you are, including your unique attributes and defining characteristics. 

Learner safety

You feel safe to engage in the learning process - asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting, and even making mistakes.

Contributor safety

You feel safe using your skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution.

Challenger safety

You feel safe to speak up and challenge the status quo when you think there’s an opportunity to change or improve. 

How do you create psychological safety in your teams?

Now that you know what psychological safety can feel and look like with your teams, let’s talk about what you can do to create an environment that supports it.

There are many ways to approach this and every team has different needs.

We recommend starting with the BRAVING Framework and a few other tactics we've found helpful with our teams at Headway.

The BRAVING Framework

A popular framework for promoting psychological safety in the workplace is Brené Brown's BRAVING framework. In her book, Dare to Lead, Brown shares the acronym BRAVING which breaks down trust into seven elements:


Setting boundaries is making clear what’s okay and what’s not okay, and why. 


You do what you say you’ll do. At work, this means staying aware of your competencies and limitations so you don’t overpromise and are able to deliver on commitments and balance competing priorities. 


You own your mistakes, apologize, and make amends. 


You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share. Team members trust their confidences are kept, and you’re not sharing any information about other people that should be confidential. 


Choosing courage over comfort; choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast, or easy; and practicing your values, not just professing them. 


I can ask for what I need, and you can ask for what you need. We can talk about how we feel without judgment. 


Extends the most generous interpretation of the intentions, words, and actions of others.

Each of these concepts is essential for creating a culture of psychological safety. When applied together, they help to create an environment where employees feel they can take risks, share ideas, and give honest feedback without fear of reprisal. 

Headway product team speaking candidly with each other

Our approach at Headway

While it’s common for companies to slap a few fancy words on their website about creating an inclusive and healthy workplace, our intention at Headway is to truly embody those values in our day-to-day interactions.

This means that whether you’re a head of the department or an assistant, everyone on our team is leading by example.

Throughout the years, we’ve prioritized a few key areas to help our team stay aligned and continue to promote an environment for psychological safety to exist.

Lead Honestly

Lead Honestly is a platform for managers to lead powerful 1-on-1 meetings and foster authentic relationships for high-performing teams.

Prior to our weekly 1:1s, our team fills out a series of questions meant to highlight areas that need attention, to encourage feedback, and provide an opportunity to check in on how each team member is feeling about not only their work but what is happening in their world outside of work.

Weekly 1:1s

It’s easy to let your weekly 1-on-1 meetings fall by the wayside, especially when they lack the structure or depth to make them valuable for teams and leaders.

This is where the 10-10-10 structure can be a helpful framework for keeping your 1-on-1 meetings from feeling stale. The first 10 minutes are designated for the team member, the second 10 minutes are for the leader to share updates or feedback, and the last 10 minutes are an opportunity for both parties to ask for help, discuss future collaborations, and make plans for meetings or other needs coming up.

It’s important to note that this structure can be applied to peer-to-peer check-ins as well, and can be really effective in cross-functional collaborations.

Ongoing self-evaluation 

Most of us have experienced an annual review in the workplace, and the anxiety that can often come from it. Our team has adopted a quarterly and annual review process that allows for leaders and employees to connect on the bigger picture more often throughout the year, ultimately leading to better outcomes and more a successful review process year-over-year.

Each team member has their own dashboard with questionnaires to help identify challenges, and goals that need to pivot or be adjusted, as well as personal development check-ins that keep the focus on continuous growth, not just outcomes and metrics.

It all circles back to building trust

In today’s business environment, creating a psychologically safe workplace is essential for any team looking to succeed.

As you begin to prioritize psychological safety in your teams, it’s important to keep a focus on small, consistent improvements over time to build stronger relationships.

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