The brain processes a provocation by a boss, competitive coworker, or dismissive subordinate as a life-or-death threat. The amygdala, the alarm bell in the brain, ignites the fight-or-flight response, hijacking higher brain center. This “act first, think later” brain structure shuts down perspective and analytical reasoning.
• Positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broaden the mind and help us build psychological, social, and physical resources.
• We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe.
• Humor increases, as does solution-finding and divergent thinking — the cognitive process underlying creativity.
So how can you increase psychological safety on your own team?
1. Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary.
- We, humans, hate losing even more than we love winning.
- The true success is a win-win outcome, so when conflicts come up, avoid triggering a fight-or-flight reaction by asking, “How could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?”
2. Speak human to human.
- Pay attention to universal needs such as respect, competence, social status, and autonomy.
- Use “Just Like Me” Model
- This person has beliefs, perspectives, and opinions, just like me.
- This person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like me.
- This person has friends, family, and perhaps children who love them, just like me.
- This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me.
- This person wishes for peace, joy, and happiness, just like me.
3. Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves.
- Think and prepare “If I position my point in this manner, what are the possible objections, and how I would respond to those counterarguments?”
- Looking at the discussion from this third-party perspective exposes weaknesses in my positions and encourages me to rethink my argument. Vs taking the audience’s response as an attack to my ego or identity.
- Prepare yourself with these questions-
- What are my main points?
- What are the three ways my listeners are likely to respond?
- How will I respond to each of those scenarios?
4. Replace blame with curiosity.
- State the problematic behavior or outcome as an observation and use factual, neutral language.
- Engage them in exploration. Ask for solutions. “What do you think needs to happen here?” “What would be your ideal scenario?” “How could I support you?”
5. Ask for feedback on delivery.
- Consider closing difficult conversations with these questions:
- What worked and what didn’t work in my delivery?
- How did it feel to hear this message?
- How could I have presented it more effectively?
6. Measure psychological safety.
- Ask your team how safe they feel and what could enhance their feeling of safety.
- Take surveys or simply ask “How confident are you that you won’t receive retaliation or criticism if you admit an error or make a mistake?”
If you create this sense of psychological safety on your own team starting now, you can expect to see higher levels of engagement, increased motivation to tackle difficult problems, more learning and development opportunities, and better performance.