Creating a culture of psychological safety – in project and operational teams

By Elisabeth Goodman, 1st May 2020

Psychological safety – definition of the term

One of our RiverRhee Alumni reminded me recently of the concept of ‘psychological safety’ in teams.  It’s a concept that’s been around for a few years now and is something that is relevant to any team, at any time.

It may be something to pay particular attention to at the moment, with many teams working on a shift basis and spending even less time together in a face-to-face environment.

Edmondson (2002) listed “four specific risks to image that people face at work: being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive”.

She described potential triggers for these risks as:

  • Asking questions or asking for information
  • Calling attention to mistakes or asking for help
  • Seeking to learn or improve (on what’s not worked as well as on what has worked well)
  • Wanting to do any of the above, or asking for feedback on their performance

Discomfort with being able to express these kinds of questions is what would typically be represented by the ‘storming’ stage of Tuckman’s (1977) stages of team development: “Can I get my say”?  The suggestion is that, until we can get this part of the team’s culture properly sorted, it will be very difficult to move onto the ‘norming’ let alone the ‘high performing’ stage.

Stages of team development_Elisabeth Goodman
Stages of team development, adapted from Tuckman.  Illustration by Nathaniel Spain in Goodman, E. “The Effective Team’s High Performance Workbook”, 2014

Edmondson used the term ‘psychological safety’ to reflect “the degree to which people perceive their work environment as conducive to taking these interpersonal risks”.

There have been further publications and also some TedEx talks and other presentations on this topic, by Edmondson and others since 2002.  This blog touches on some of these, and on the key points that are emerging from them.

Understand and influence group norms

Google launched Project Aristotle in 2012 to understand why some teams performed better than others and came to the conclusion that it was all about team norms:(Goodman, 2018b) the unwritten rules that a group operates by.

They concluded that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to the effectiveness of these team norms, and looked at Edmondson (1999) to understand this better.

They found that what helped to create psychological safety was when:

  • There was less of a divide between home and work life
  • Everyone took turns to speak about what was going on in their lives (if they chose to do so)
  • Individuals were comfortable about expressing fears, feelings, emotions
  • People showed empathy towards each other.

This behaviour is what Delizonna (2017) referred to as “speaking human-to-human”.  She too points to Edmondson’s (1999) work which includes her tool for measuring psychological safety.

Lead by example

Young (2020) has a collection of recommendations for creating psychological safety in project teams.  His article in the APM’s Spring 2020 issue of Project magazine includes these useful nuggets:

Be visible, available, open and curious

A leader sets the tone for psychological safety within the team.  The old adage of ‘management by walk-about” still holds.  If you are available, supportive, open and curious about what is happening and wanting to learn from others then you will create a safer environment.

Choose your pronouns carefully

As the team leader, choose “I” for messing-up, and “we” for successes.

Use “it” for finding the root cause of problems, combined with “why” to understand: “Why was the customer told that?”, rather than “Who told them that?”

Set a forward-looking and positive tone

Things will go wrong, that is the nature of any complex endeavour.  Reframe problems as learning opportunities, for working together using the diverse strengths and expertise of the team, and for being creative and innovative.

This point echoes some of Delizonna (2017) to:

  • Approach conflict as an opportunity for collaboration rather than competition. (This is reminiscent of emotional intelligence and conflict management (Goodman, 2018a))
  • Replace blame with curiosity: adopting a learning mindset

Use team kick-off meetings, and regular reflections to agree and review how the team is working together

Ask such questions as:

  • What will help the team thrive?
  • What can the team agree to do when things get “sticky”?
  • What kind of atmosphere do we want to create as a team?
  • What can we do to work even more effectively as a team?

And, as suggested by Delizonna (2017) generally adopt a culture of asking for feedback.


Edmondson (2014) describes this whole topic very vividly in her TedEx talk.  She uses the word “voice” to describe what we need to be comfortable about conveying and has three simple rules:

  1. Frame the work as a learning opportunity rather a problem
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility
  3. Model curiosity

What are you doing to create a climate of psychological safety in your teams?  How well are you expressing your “voice” and enabling others to “bring their whole and contributing selves” to the workplace?



Delizonna, L. (2017) High-performing teams need psychological safety.  Here’s how to create it. Harvard Business Review, August 24th

Duhigg, C. (2016) What Google learnt from its quest to build the perfect team. New York Times, February 25.

Edmondson, A. (1999) (Accessed 1st May 2020)

Edmondson, A.C. (2002) Managing the risk of learning: Psychological safety in work teams in West, M. (Ed) International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork, London: Blackwell.

Edmondson, A. (2014) Building a psychologically safe workplace. TEDEx HGSE. (Accessed 1st May 2020)

Goodman, E. (2018a) (Accessed 1st May 2020)

Goodman, E. (2018b) (Accessed 1st May 2020)

Tuckman, B and Jensen, M. (1977) Stages of small group development revisited in Group and Organisational Studies pp 419-427

Young, R. (2020) Honesty is the best policy. Project, Spring pp. 49-51

About the author

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, through courses, workshops and one-to-one coaching, and with a focus on the Life Sciences. RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus.

Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting teams on a global basis.  She is developing her coaching practice, with a focus on helping individuals to develop management, interpersonal and communication skills, and to deal with change.

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of the APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

Elisabeth is also a member of the ICF (International Coaching Federation) and is working towards her PG Certification in Business and Personal Coaching with Barefoot Coaching and the University of Chester.

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