The Better Work Project: Psychological safety for high performance

09 September

What is psychological safety? And how can we create psychologically safe teams? In this podcast, we speak with Gareth Holebrook, coach, agile leader and high-performance triathlete about how to build a psychologically safe environment where leaders show the way.



  • Psychological safety is not dissimilar to physiological safety. You know when you feel safe. If you’re in a group of people and you want to tell a joke, do you feel able to tell the joke? Do you feel safe that you can speak up in a group setting?
  • Psychological safety is the belief that people can have a free exchange of ideas.
  • Andy provided an example of psychological safety. He had moved to Australia for a role at a software company in which marketing and sales were down. As a team, they broke into sub-teams, became clear on what was needed, and pulled off a number of campaigns to lift revenue. They felt up against it but faced it together to get it done.
  • Gareth provided an example of psychological safety when he was working as a product engineer at an engineering company in the UK. The prototypes didn’t work and cost a lot of money. He learned he had permission from his manager to experiment and try new things, and because of that, he could learn a lot more rapidly.
  • Learned helplessness can be an issue but psychological safety is formed by your environment.
  • You can be damaged by an unsafe environment. But if the team operates well and the leader fosters open discussion you can change that. If you feel safe, then you’ll be more open to sharing.
  • You cannot create a culture overnight. In fact, you can’t change it at all. Culture is how people feel and it’s a lagging indicator.
  • As a leader of agile coaches, Gareth uses openness and curiosity. Questions like “what am I missing?” rather than “are we good to go?”.
  • Leaders need to demonstrate that they care personally but challenge directly.
  • Body language is important, even nuanced things can show.
  • We can model behaviour and be authentic. Then others align to it and it becomes habitual.
  • Simon Sinek talks about the fact that it isn’t about intensity it’s about consistency. Micro behaviours build over time.  
  • Constant and persistent feedback is needed - little and often.
  • Authenticity can’t be an excuse for bad behaviour. There are different elements to authenticity. We can react and be different in various contexts but still be authentic.
  • Psychological safety requires new skills that leaders don’t have – listening being one. Related to that is questioning instead of telling. Staying curious for longer is important.
  • Consistency, vulnerability and trust are needed. That’s when we connect and there is a deep sense of trust.
  • Leadership takes great courage, you have to be the first mover and you have to prove there is trust. This happens from modelled behaviour.
  • Psychological safety is often squashed. We go from meeting to meeting, we don’t prepare and we lack intention at times. Unintentionally we don’t monitor share of voice and allow dominate people to talk more for example.
  • You can measure psychological safety a bit like the Gini code. We want that to be as low as possible.
  • Leaders can use coercive language – they instruct all too often.
  • When things go wrong, start with a what. What can I see? What am I missing?
  • You have to take the risk as a leader that people can take advantage. The group over time will reject that and people can be brought in over time.
  • It’s important to build self-esteem as a leader.
  • People will have their own beliefs and experiences, but they see the intentions are good and are welcomed into that.
  • To create a shared understanding, a personal user manual can be used to show others how to work with us better.
  • The River of life exercise is useful for new teams to build contentedness.
  • You can address complex problems without psychological safety, but it’s probably going to be harder and you’re probably not going to get as good an outcome.
  • Without safety, we revert to a fight or flight response and this limits our ability to learn. You can’t solve complex challenges in this state, you can’t think holistically. At a neurological level, we require psychological safety.
  • Amy Edmonson and others have really brought this topic to light with leaders. We will realise that it’s where we want to be and that it works.
  • David Marquet’s book discusses his experience of moving from a permission-based culture to intent-based leadership.




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