Breakfast for Champions: Building Psychologically Safe Teams

October 31, 2023 – During our October Breakfast for Champions session, we explored cultivating psychologically safe teams. Leading the charge was Waleed Sadruddin, a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultant, who kicked off the lesson with a powerful opening statement, “There is no value in having diversity, if those diverse individuals don’t have the ability or feel safe to contribute to the organization.” Many organizations pursue their DEI objectives through metrics tied to the number of diverse candidate hires and DEI-focused trainings, while important, this can only offer temporary organizational changes. The real transformation happens when every member of the team feels a sense of belonging, can safely express their opinions, and feels their skills add value to the team, creating lasting change and nurturing psychologically safe teams.

Psychological safety is a shared belief that no one will be punished, or humiliated for bringing up ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. This may look as simple as an employee sharing their opinion during a team huddle, or as significant as a group of employees challenging a policy put in place by leadership. In both cases, the fear of speaking up is reduced as the employees know they are safe to speak up and challenge the current work environment without repercussions. Waleed further broke down the concept of psychological safety into four quadrants:

  1. Learner Safety: Learner safety means that employees feel safe engaging in all aspects of the discovery process, asking questions, experimenting and trying new things, asking for help, and learning from mistakes – not if – but when they are made. Learning safety fosters a willingness to learn something new, attack a thorny problem, or look for a new opportunity or breakthrough.
  2. Challenging Safety: Challenging safety takes place when something needs to change. This type of safety is based on permission to challenge the status quo. By challenging safety, employees speak up because they have a license to disagree.
  3. Inclusion Safety: Inclusion safety is not tied to a person’s title, position, authority, or background; it means each employee is valued, listened to, and treated fairly. Inclusion safety is created and sustained through consistent, affirming touchpoints among colleagues. Employees can stumble, fall short, and get it wrong, but are never embarrassed, punished, marginalized, or rejected.
  4. Collaborator safety: Collaborator safety is built on mutual access and social engagement. In other words, employees can pull up their chairs to anyone at any time. Employees live in a constant and perpetual state of open dialogue and constructive debate.

As demonstrated in the four quadrants above, psychological safety can be achieved in many ways all linked to universal human needs. While learning how to incorporate psychological safety into team dynamics, it’s important to recognize that psychological safety is the responsibility of each person on a team, but the overall climate of an organization is the responsibility of leadership.

How can leadership create a psychologically safe work environment? Leaders of an organization can set the tone by providing a safe space where employees can unapologetically be themselves and contribute their skills to the organization. Waleed shared three common practices used by inclusive leaders: actively asking for input from the team on relevant matters, providing support by checking in on employees and their well-being, and offering new perspectives for employees to unlock their potential. These are all skills that take time to develop, but even minor changes in how to show care for teams will begin to impact the employee experience.

Our Breakfast for Champions sessions are designed to provide ideas and tools for employers to use to advance their organization’s DEI objectives. We encourage employers to share any valuable insights with the team with the goal of implementing them. To access a recording of the training or our previous Breakfast for Champions sessions, click here.