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The fall before the catch: this is where you nurture psychological safety
Do you feel safe speaking up in front of your team? You don’t build trust through team-building exercises and stated values. Here are 11 ways to build trust in teams.
Last updated18 Aug 2022
Reading time13 min
“Don’t drop me.”
Have you ever played that rather uncomfortable team-building exercise where you fall backward and your team catches you?
You’re standing on an elevated platform, your hands are crossed over your chest, eyes are closed, and you fall back into the arms of your coworkers.
The trust fall. They’re there to catch you. You’re in a safe space. The symbolism is touching.
But does this actually make people feel closer to and safer around their teammates? Or is it just a ridiculous corporate exercise with no translation in the actual work world?
Our belief is that building psychologically safe teams is more about shaping the space that people fall through than catching people at the bottom. And at the end of this article, we’ll take a different kind of fall that we think better resonates with how people actually feel at work.
But for now, let’s start with a smaller daily leap.
Do you trust your teammates?
When was the last time you jumped out of bed and said to yourself, “I can’t wait to say something stupid at work so people look at me like I’m an idiot”?
Unless you’re a masochist or an early version of Jim Carey, this is unlikely part of your morning motivational routine.
More likely, concerns of looking ignorant or incompetent are keeping you from speaking up, asking questions, and bringing your whole self to the work table.
This is the territory of psychological safety. It’s your perception of the consequences of taking a risk in front of your team—from asking questions to speaking up with an idea to challenging an accepted belief.
Let’s check in with a quick quiz. In the following situations, which consequence feels more like your work environment:
1) If I don’t look, dress, or act like the people on my team, the team will:
(a) accept me how am I
(b) give me condescending looks and make me feel like an outsider
2) If I ask a naïve question, people will:
(a) answer my question as honestly as they can, maybe with a smile
(b) belittle me and make me feel stupid
3) If I produce work that misses the mark, people will:
(a) give me useful, constructive feedback
(b) tear my heart out
4) If I challenge my boss’s opinion or decision on a project, then I will:
(a) be listened to and responded to with respect
(b) get fired, or at least reprimanded
Teams with high psychological safety are part of the (a) team. You might say it reflects an absence of interpersonal fear.
In psychologically safe teams, people feel confident that others won’t embarrass or berate them for asking a question, admitting a mistake, or offering a new idea. They feel safe taking risks, like suggesting a new campaign idea or innovative product feature that could be the next big hit. Or possibly the next flat flop.
Ultimately, it’s about trust, the foundation for collaboration. When people trust each other, they can spend less time managing impressions and more time focused on shared goals.
This is great—of course we don’t want to hurt peoples’ feelings. But what about accountability? We still need people being up to speed on projects and doing great work. Does psychological safety mean we risk nicing ourselves to death, as Zuckerburg fears?
“Why do we need psychological safety?” grumbles the outcome-driven optimizer
It turns out that psychological safety isn’t just about making people feel good. It leads to measurable business results too.
A big internal study at Google—called Project Aristotle—found that psychological safety was one of five key characteristics of highly functioning teams.
Why? Well for one, being in a space where you feel comfortable proposing bizarre ideas, asking those unasked questions, and challenging the status quo is a catalyst for innovation. Without risk-taking, you’ll end up doing the same thing over and over again.
Psychologically safe teams also bring in more revenue, are rated more effective by executive-level managers, and have higher employee retention.
But if you’re promoting the promises of psychological safety to maximize business outcomes, your efforts may be misguided from the start. Because this aim can drive leaders to implement safety through gimmicky team-building exercises, explicit values, and rigid rituals.
Psychological safety isn’t something you ‘implement.’ It’s something you nurture by hiring good people who work together to shape safe spaces.
So we’d like to share some ways that we nurture psychological safety in our teams.
11 ways you can nurture psychological safety in your team
Psychological safety is a mix of mindset and a continual focus on creating spaces where people feel comfortable speaking up, sharing struggles, and being themselves.
It’s not what you say, it’s what you do. In fact, we think that’s important enough to stand as the first point.
1. Focus on behaviors, not values
Psychological safety isn’t a company value or rule. Because it’s not about saying ‘we trust you, ‘you’re safe here,’ ‘everyone’s voice is equally valued.’ It’s something that people believe about their team or work environment because they experience it. Over and over again.
Now, full transparency: one of our five values at Hojar is “Build trust with transparency.” But we don’t get trust or transparency by saying we care about these things.
Trust comes from the accumulation of experiences over time—through every interaction we have with our coworkers. Here’s how Adria Cruz on our team put it:
"Nobody trusts someone else when forced to. I feel safe around my team because we all honestly want each other to succeed. There are no secrets, no negative comments behind someone’s back, and there's always a helping hand a Slack message away."
2. Turn off the limelight and scatter appreciation
Have you ever shared a creative idea with a coworker, only to hear them present it as their own in the next brainstorm? Ever worked your butt off on a project, only to have your boss accept the praise for a job well done? It’s all too common and one of the fastest ways to dissolve trust across a team.
Psychologically safe teams distribute credit for ideas and outcomes. They don’t hog the limelight because they know that nothing gets done in a solo-driven vacuum. And they also let teammates know that they’re appreciated. Here are a few prompts:
I couldn’t have done that without you
I really enjoy working with you
Thanks for making me think differently about that approach
That’s a good question. I was wondering the same
Thanks for speaking up in that meeting
It can be a simple Slack message, a quick but candid comment in a 1:1, or a sincere expression in a group setting.
But don’t be fake, and don’t overdo it. If it’s not genuine, they’ll see right through it—and possibly lose trust in future interactions.
3. See the humans behind the roles
Adrià, Growth Product Manager
Natalia, Marketing Data Analyst
Mohannad Ali, CEO
Need data? Go to Natalia. Got questions for the Growth team? Ping Adrià. Wondering about Hotjar’s vision? Ask Mohannad.
We’ve all been hired into our companies to serve a role. And we’ve got fancy job titles to prove it. But those roles are just a part of who we are.
Adrià’s also a dad. Natalia loves board sports. Mohannad plays the drums.
And none of us truly leaves our personal life in the kitchen when we log on to work. Your colleagues are people, not simple cogs in your business machine. Appreciating this can help you connect with the humans behind the job titles. And these connections build trust.
Recognizing people as the whole humans they are can also bring sensitivity to the hidden issues that each of us is dealing with, like burnout and other mental health struggles. It’s called empathy, a natural ingredient for psychologically safe teams.
4. Respect differences in personal boundaries
Our differences run deep. We currently have team members in 43 countries, ranging in age from 23 to 54. But some of the easiest differences to overlook are personal preferences for sharing information and interacting with people.
For one person, an ill parent or difficult child may be something they need to talk about. For another, work is not the place to dive into these personal topics. And both people are right.
Don’t assume you know what people prefer. Instead ask: “How can I best support you?”
And likewise, let people know how they can best support you. Whether on a project or dealing with a difficult situation at home, tell people: “This is what support looks like for me right now.”
5. Build teams through empathy and experimentation
We’ve got a confession: we don’t have any secret sauce that guarantees successful remote teamwork. Actually, maybe that confession is our secret sauce.
Hotjar has been a fully remote company since before the pandemic, so we’ve been tweaking our remote team dynamics for a long time. One thing we’ve learned is that building teams where people feel safe and trusting is an ongoing process.
You don’t just lay down the law and expect people to adapt to you. You work with the people in your team to build systems that work for them. And when people feel part of the process, that increases trust. Some team behaviors we’ve come to value include:
Saving (the right) time for small-talk
Looking curiously from the other perspective
Focusing on continuous improvement
You can read more about how empathy and experimentation drive Hotjar's team rituals here.
6. Stop behind-the-back chatter
“Did you hear what Suzie said yesterday?”
We’ve all been around the gossiper. That person who’s always criticizing what others have said and done. And we learn pretty quickly not to share anything around that person because we know our mishaps will quickly find their way to other people’s ears.
Do you have the tendency to even slightly bad-talk others when they’re not in the room? It’s an excellent way to kill trust in teams. On the other hand, giving people compliments behind their backs can show that you really want the best for others.
7. Get better at giving—and receiving—feedback
Amy Edmondson is one of Harvard Business School’s leading voices on building teams. Her TED talk on psychological safety has been viewed over 1M times. One of her key takeaways is:
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Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
Why? Because there’s a huge amount of uncertainty in the workplace. Will this product feature fly? Is the campaign idea worth pursuing? Oftentimes, we don’t know.
So we focus on feedback to make sure that, regardless of the outcome, we keep moving forward. But how you give and receive feedback makes all the difference.
One of the most important guides: provide feedback on the work, not the person. When you’re in a psychologically safe environment, you know that feedback is aimed at improving the work, not a critique of the creator’s skill.
So when you’re the giver, try supporting before suggesting: “I like how you [thought about this], maybe we could also test [this other thing].”
And when you’re the receiver, take it as an opportunity to learn, not an attack on your competence.
Another tip: when asking for feedback, be specific on what you’re after. Are you looking for thoughts on the general idea? Do you want people to get into the weeds?
If you want to up your feedback game, you can read more about why feedback is so hard and how to fix it here.
8. Turn resistance into curiosity
“Hey Alex, what do you think we should do?” Asking questions invites people into a conversation and lets people know that their opinions matter. Questions can also open doors when conflicting views arise.
When a colleague suggests something that you may initially doubt or disagree with, flip that resistance into curiosity. Instead of “I don’t know about that one,” try “I hadn’t thought about that before. Tell me more.”
Asking questions can also demonstrate that you don’t have all the answers. It can be especially powerful when someone more senior in the team acknowledges the need for input. Adrià shared a time he experienced this:
During our rebranding, we asked our VP of Marketing for approval on the new brand. Her response wasn’t what I was expecting at all. Instead of taking it to the executive team for review, she recommended that we should ask our customers what they thought. Mic drop.
So ask a lot of questions. Ask your teammates what they think. Let your curiosity lead the conversation.
9. Clean out your ears
Trusted friends are great listeners. And trusted teams are no different. Giving your full attention to someone who’s talking tells them that their opinions are welcome, that their ideas matter. Here’s how Alison explains her experience:
It’s the first time in my career that I actually feel heard. Having teammates that listen and hold space for me without jumping in to criticize or interrupt makes me feel like my voice really matters.
Here are a few other things to keep in mind to become a better active listener:
Put your phone away in meetings
Relax your own judgments: listen to what someone’s actually saying, not what you think they’re saying
Confirm that you understood correctly (“So just to check, you think we should [xyz]”)
Thank people for offering opinions (“Great idea, thanks for sharing.”)
The better—and less judgmentally—you listen, the more comfortable people will be asking questions and offering ideas.
10. Feel your face
You have about 20 muscles in your face that work together to express emotions from happiness and curiosity to surprise and disgust. And people are quick to interpret those wide eyes and wrinkled noses.
But that’s not to say that others read our emotions as we intend them. Your teammate who’s insecure about an idea they’re presenting might read your curiosity as rejection.
With most of our work interactions confined to faces boxed into a video call, paying attention to your facial expressions can go a long way.
And by the way, your face also reveals if you’re bored with a presentation or distracted by Slack. So if you make the effort to log into a meeting, don’t waste your and your teammates’ time by multitasking.
11. Leave your armor at the door
You’ve got an upcoming Zoom call. You feel overwhelmed and underprepared. But as you click to connect to the meeting, you put on your armor radiating confidence and infallibility. Now people perceive you as that secure coworker they can count on.
But don’t be so quick to hide those kinks in your chainmail.
Psychological safety requires vulnerability. It requires people to open up about what they're struggling with and ask for help when they need it.
How do you encourage people to open up?
You can’t simply tell your colleagues to ‘be vulnerable’ and expect their fears and failure to come oozing out. But you can help by modeling your own vulnerability.
This is especially important for the leaders and senior members of the team. Resist the urge to prove you’re a hero, and instead ask questions to show that you don’t know it all. Share stories of times you’ve struggled, made mistakes, and felt insecure.
But be careful: vulnerability doesn't mean sharing everything. You need to have a filter. In a conversation with Adam Grant, vulnerability virtuoso Brené Brown set the boundaries like this:
Are you sharing your emotions and experiences to move work, a connection, a relationship forward, or are you working your shit out with someone?
So, for example, revealing your struggles with imposter syndrome might be useful. But if you’re trying to figure out your life’s purpose, it’s best to save that for a beer after hours.
Creating a better fall
Psychological safety can be encouraged at the company level, but it emerges from the interactions amongst individuals in a team over time.
As part of a team, you help to weave that safety net. You do this through every encounter with your coworkers—by actively listening, giving thoughtful feedback, respecting differences, and showing your own vulnerability.
Do you make your teammates feel safe to speak up with questions, ideas, and concerns? Are you there when they fall?
In a trust fall, your aim is to catch your coworkers. But what if, instead, we focused on creating a better fall? After all, falling is how we learn.
A great Buddhist teacher once explained life like this:
The bad news is you are falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there is no ground.
Sometimes life — work-life included — can feel like a freefall. Psychologically safe teams remove the ground by normalizing the fall. They create spaces where it’s okay to ask and share. And that's when people show up with something to say.
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