What are the three words you should welcome most in team discussions and yet feel least comfortable saying yourself?
“I Screwed Up”.

Creating a workplace environment where employees feel safe to admit their mistakes, ask “stupid” questions and speak up about new ideas without fear of embarrassment or punishment is critical to team and company success.

In part one of our series on psychological safety, we talked about what psychological safety is (and what it is not) and why it is critical to growing high-performance teams, highlighting two decades of research from the likes of Google and Dr. Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School.

Now we’ll talk about the HOW. How do you create psychological safety in your team? How do you help your team members overcome the human instinct to err on “let’s just go with the status quo”.

We’ll learn from successful leaders across different industries and companies, from NASA and Pixar, to the US Army and the Children’s Hospital and Clinics in Minneapolis.

Leveraging the three-stage framework we discussed earlier (setting the stage, inviting engagement and responding productively), here are 9 tangible actions you can take to remove the fear of failure in your team.

Set the Stage

1. Frame projects as a learning problem, not an execution problem

Framing projects as a “learning” problem helps to trigger a growth mindset in your team. Instead of getting from point A to point B with blinders focused on executing via a pre-defined plan, the focus is on learning what works, what doesn’t and what can be done differently in the journey between point A and B.

How do you trigger this “learning” mindset? Julie Morath, COO of Children’s Hospital and Clinics Minneapolis does it by openly discussing the uncertainties, risks and complexities of any project her team takes on. She lets them know that the only logical way to overcome these uncertainties is for team members to openly voice their concerns and learn from failures.

“Healthcare delivery by its nature is a complex error-prone system…Speaking up saves lives.”

– Julie Morath, COO of Children’s Hospital and Clinics in Minneapolis

2. Acknowledge mistakes you’ve made

Leaders go first. Owning up to and sharing stories of your mistakes help people understand that it’s okay to be wrong. Dr. Amy Edmondson at Harvard Business School even talks about how powerful it is for leaders to apologize for not having made it safe enough for employees to approach them about problems in the past.

“Here’s the mistake I made…”

– Ed Catmull, CEO and Cofounder of Pixar

3. Create “rules of engagement” in team meetings

Getting people to speak up in meetings can sometimes feel like pulling teeth, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are a few ground rules that can create a safe environment for people to speak up during meetings:

  • Don’t let one person dominate speaking time – especially if that person is you.
  • Remove power structure from the room. One way to do this is to make sure that no one, not even the CEO, can override ideas or dismiss problems. At Pixar, the Brain Trust Meeting has a “no power” mandate designed to do just that.
  • Limit the number of people in the meeting. Robert Sutton, Stanford University professor of organizational behavior, studied dynamics of different group sizes and found that the most productive meetings have 5 to 8 people.
Contrarian Office Hours
At URX, the team gathers every Friday for a meeting designed as a safe space where people are explicitly asked to call out what isn’t working and how things can be done differently. It has helped them tackle hot button issues from vacation policies to equity packages.

Invite Engagement

4. Have an “Always On” channel for honest feedback

Create different channels for people to share feedback with you. “Open door” policy is great, but not everyone may feel comfortable talking about sensitive topics this way. Having an anonymized feedback channel that your employees can trust is key to building trust and opening up deeper conversations. 

5. Art of the Debrief

A debrief is when a team comes together to reflect on a recent experience (project completion, event rollout, etc.), discuss what went well and examine areas of improvement. A meta-analysis have found that teams using debriefs performed 25% better than teams that did not debrief (Tennenbaum & Cerasoli, 2013).

NASA uses debriefs as a vital tool to train their astronauts and ground crews for the Mars Mission. The U.S. Army uses the After Action Review (AAR) approach to debrief. Here are two principles to live by to make your debriefs effective:

  • Do not judge success or failure in a debrief. The focus is on what can be learned moving forward.
  • Assume every team member did the best they could with what they knew at the time, their skills and the resources they had on hand.

6. Measure Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is not just a fluffy idea it can be measured. From her studies of team dynamics across different industries, Dr. Amy Edmondson developed a seven-item measure of psychological safety. These measures ask participants to assess whether they agree or disagree with specific statements as they relate to their experiences of vulnerability, support and encouragement at work.

Respond Productively

7. “Plussing” it out

How do you turn a “reject” idea into a pot of gold? At Pixar, “plussing” is the answer. It is a technique where instead of rejecting ideas in their entirety, you take an additive approach to sharing feedback. The purpose is to turn rocks into diamonds. For example, if the creative director for Pixar’s Toy Story 4 doesn’t like the way Woody’s eyes roll, he won’t just toss out the sketch. Instead he’ll “plus” it by asking the animator “I like the way you drew Woody’s eyes. What if they rolled left?” This way you “amplify” ideas, instead of “silencing” them. Here are some example amplifiers and silencers you can use:

Silencers vs. Amplifiers
Source: Pixar’s Secret For Giving Feedback

8. Approach with Curiosity

When team members come to you to talk about mistakes or failures, the worst reaction is to play the blame game. Blame and criticism escalates conflict resulting in defensiveness and disengagement. A great alternative to blame is curiosity.

Start by separating the person from the problem. Then invite them on a joint exploration of the issues. For example, “I would imagine you faced several roadblocks during this project. How about we take some time to uncover them together?

9. The Power of Saying “I Don’t Know”

There is often a misconception that leaders should always be “in the know”. But the opposite is true. As Simon Sinek says, the biggest leadership lesson he’s ever learnt is to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” or “I need help”. These three magic words signal a great leader who is not afraid to be vulnerable and strong enough to ask his/her team to work together to find the answer.

“I don’t know”

– Simon Sinek on his biggest leadership lesson

Key Learnings

  • Creating an environment where employees feel comfortable saying “I screwed up” is crucial to the growth of high-performance teams and business success.
  • Successful leaders put into practice simple, yet powerful tactics that build greater psychological safety in their teams
  • Practise these 9 actions in your everyday interactions with your team:
    • Setting the Stage:
      • Frame projects as a learning, not an execution problem
      • Acknowledge mistakes you’ve made
      • Create “rules of engagement” in team meetings
    • Inviting Engagement
      • Have an “Always On” channel for honest feedback
      • Art of the Debrief
      • Measure Psychological Safety
    • Responding Productively
      • “Plussing” it out
      • Approach with Curiosity
      • Power of saying “I Don’t Know”