Improving teamwork through psychological safety

Teamwork can be both a blessing and a curse: If the team is well-rehearsed or communicates well, teamwork can add real value for all involved. However, if something is 'off', the productivity of the team can suffer, as can the motivation of the team members. So why is it that some teams work smoothly and efficiently, while others fail early on? One reason may be the psychological safety of the team. Even when the framework conditions are similar, there can be significant differences in team performance if this is not guaranteed.


What is psychological safety and why is it important for teamwork?

In recent years, the term 'psychological safety' has become increasingly common in the context of teamwork and leadership development. But what exactly does it mean and why is it so important for teamwork? Put simply, psychological safety is the feeling that team members have when they can freely express their opinions and ideas without fear of negative consequences. When this prevails in a team, team members feel encouraged to share their opinions and ideas with their colleagues, even if these opinions differ from those of other team members or are controversial. They trust that their colleagues will value their contributions and deal with them constructively. 
A lack of this can have serious consequences for teamwork: In a team where team members do not feel encouraged to express their opinions freely, fewer creative ideas are developed, and fewer solutions are found. Ideas or suggestions may be withheld for fear of criticism or rejection, which can lead to important issues not being addressed. For example, risks may not be identified because the person who recognizes the risk does not want to be seen as a pessimist. This can lead to a group dynamic where everyone moves in the same direction without considering other perspectives. If a person feels that they cannot or are not allowed to express their opinion freely, they will not feel heard or valued - motivation and commitment suffer and, of course, this is a burden on the person, which can lead to stress and frustration.

How can psychological safety be promoted?

Psychological safety is a prerequisite for good teamwork. A safe working environment can lead to greater efficiency and innovation, so project managers should take measures to promote psychological safety in their teams. These measures can be divided into communication-related and team-related measures. However, before taking action, it is important to assess the status quo. This involves assessing and questioning the effectiveness of teamwork: Where are the team's potentials, are there blockages and what are the causes or problems leading to the goal not being achieved? Another effective way of identifying the team's needs is to set up feedback forms or "suggestion boxes" that allow team members to freely express their opinions and feelings. Possible actions are then considered.

Communication-specific measures:
  1. Improve your own communication: This includes not only the spoken word, but also facial expressions and gestures. Good communication requires avoiding negative expressions such as insults, sarcastic remarks and degrading behaviour. Instead, active listening and a respectful conversation culture should be cultivated. Awareness should be developed of how what you say may be received by the other person and whether you really mean to convey something in that way, whether verbally or non-verbally. 
  2. Encourage open communication: Leaders should create a culture of open communication where team members are encouraged to express their opinions and thoughts freely. They should lead by example. By sharing their own thoughts and opinions and accepting feedback, they promote a culture of openness and create an atmosphere of trust. It can be helpful to establish a code of conduct with the team that emphasises the commitment to open communication and mutual respect and serves as a guide for all team members. In particular, this includes responding to opinions and thoughts appropriately, i.e. with empathy and respect, which leads to the next point. 
  3. Encourage empathy and respect: Leaders should ensure that all team members are respected and valued, regardless of their opinions or perspectives. Empathy and compassion help team members feel safe, supported and confident to share their opinions and ideas. This is because when people respond positively, even if they do not share the opinion or idea, they still have the confidence to continue expressing it. Therefore, negative verbal or non-verbal responses should be avoided, even if the opinion or idea is later rejected. However, inclusion in the minutes also shows respect. Therefore, a culture of respect and appreciation for all team members should be promoted. Sharing stories and perspectives and emphasising the importance of diversity and inclusion can create a space where differences are seen as strengths and all team members feel comfortable.  
  4. Hold regular feedback sessions: A culture of open communication and feedback can be established through regular feedback sessions. This should include equal opportunities for all team members to give constructive feedback and receive positive recognition. These can help team members feel comfortable and ensure that every idea is taken seriously. Encourage everyone to share their ideas and feedback openly and make it clear that they are valued. After all, feedback is the only way to grow and improve, as long as it is constructive. 
Team-specific measures:
  1. Create an error culture: Leaders should encourage their teams to try new ideas and find innovative solutions by making them feel that it is acceptable to make mistakes. In this way, a culture of continuous improvement can emerge, fuelled by feedback and the search for ways to improve. To create a culture of accepting mistakes, leaders should actively model that mistakes are seen as opportunities for improvement. Regular reflection and shared error analysis can help. Team members should be encouraged to discuss mistakes openly in order to learn from them and find solutions together. 
  2. Provide training and education: Targeted training and education can be provided to strengthen psychological safety in teams. This could include training to improve communication and cooperation, conflict management training or workshops to improve team dynamics. By learning conflict management techniques, conflicts in the team can be resolved effectively. This is because, as mentioned above, constructive expression is particularly important when dealing with conflict. In this way you stay on the facutal level. To promote psychological safety in the team, targeted training and education should be available to all team members and sufficient time should be allocated for it.
  3. Build strong team dynamics: Leaders can promote the development of strong team dynamics through team-building activities such as joint leisure activities or team workshops. This will enable team members to build better relationships and work together more effectively. Regular meetings and reflection processes help to strengthen the team's sense of togetherness. The team gets to know each other better, learns how to deal with each other and can therefore prevent conflicts.
  4. Define clear roles and responsibilities: To minimise misunderstandings and conflicts in the team, clear roles and responsibilities should be defined. This will ensure that all team members know exactly what is expected of them and can carry out their tasks effectively. In addition, clear goals and priorities can be set to focus the team on a common vision and increase motivation. To ensure effective teamwork, it is also important to establish clear communication channels. This way, team members can always be reached during working hours and problems can be solved quickly. Not only are problems solved, but everyone is kept up to date and knows what to do next.
It is important to note, however, that not every measure is suitable for every team. The effectiveness of the measures depends very much on the individual status quo of the team, so the measures should be tailored to individual needs. For example, if a team has difficulty organising itself, this may lead to team members being less motivated to develop their own ideas and more dependent on the decisions of others. In this case, targeted measures to promote self-organisation and ownership may be useful to increase psychological safety in the team.

Challenges in promoting psychological safety

Encouragement is crucial for successful teamwork and a healthy working environment. However, there are some challenges in implementing it.
One of the biggest challenges is that fostering is an ongoing process that takes time and effort. It cannot simply be achieved through a one-off training session or seminar. Instead, it requires a constant focus on developing an open, respectful and supportive culture. Promoting psychological safety requires a commitment from leaders and managers to invest time and resources in the process. Simply introducing new policies is not enough; ongoing support is needed to ensure success.
However, all the measures and management commitment will be in vain if the team does not accept the changes involved. Implementing measures may mean that some team members feel uncomfortable or have to leave their comfort zone. It is therefore important that changes are carefully planned and introduced to the team to ensure that they are accepted and supported by all team members. Once the team understands that these measures are beneficial, they will be more open, and more measures can be introduced. This is because psychological safety allows opinions to be expressed freely without fear of repercussions. However, this attitude has to be embedded in the minds of the team members. In some cultures, it may be inappropriate to express opinions openly, e.g. to avoid losing face. Of course, this has to be taken into account when implementing the measures. It is therefore important for leaders and project managers to be sensitive and use different approaches to ensure that all team members are involved and supported, which in turn is enabled by the status quo identified earlier.


In order to move a project forward, new ideas are always needed, and team members contribute them. However, these are not always welcomed by everyone, as people do not always agree with each other. In order to overcome the fear of rejection and move the project forward, measures must be taken to give the team psychological security so that they can express themselves without restraint. After all, a project needs many ideas to find the best one to implement. If team members know that their opinions and ideas are respected, they will be more confident in expressing them, even if they are not implemented. Sometimes, however, they are implemented, and sometimes an idea expressed earlier can inspire another team member's idea. In this way, healthy communication, empathy and respect promote the psychological safety of all participants to successfully achieve the project goal.

Psychological safety - the IAPM logo
Author: IAPM internal
Keywords: Project management, Psychological safety, Leadership

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