Psychologically Safe Teams Are Psychologically Flexible Teams

by Aprilia West, PsyD, MT, PCC

One of the biggest challenges I see when coaching teams is the gap between understanding what they should do to be effective together and how to do it.
The “what” has been widely disseminated through findings from the 2012 Google study, Project Aristotle. One factor stood out as being most important for effective teaming: psychological safety– the feeling and belief that you belong, can learn, contribute and challenge the status quo without fear of marginalization or punishment from your team [1]. And this makes sense. We need to feel safe in order to show up fully and take the risks that maintain relationships and outcomes without (too much) fear of negative consequences.
But what this research didn’t address as clearly is how team members can pivot from behavior as usual to increase their psychological safety.
To get to the “how,” it’s helpful to highlight why we humans feel psychologically unsafe in groups. In general, and especially in high-stakes social situations (like a team), people want to stay in good standing with their peers. At our core this makes us feel safe. As social creatures we are wired for belonging and affinity.
When we depend on others to maintain our good standing, it’s not hard for the threat level to get high (e.g., someone gives us the side eye or disagrees with our brilliant idea). Even more so when our team member’s opinions contribute to performance evaluation, influence our reputation, and potentially affect our financial stability and opportunities for professional advancement.
When this happens, our default tendency will be to see others as potential adversaries and to play safe and small to prevent any feared or unwanted outcomes. We become transactional in relationships, defensive, intolerant of ambiguity, unimaginative, reactive, anxious and exhausted.
In fact, the more psychologically rigid we become, the less we respond to stress, challenge and uncertainty in effective, context-sensitive ways[2]. Your group can end up where all good teams go to die- the slog of fear-driven tedium and lackluster performance.
Unless we learn to practice psychological flexibility, we become preoccupied with what we don’t want, instead of what we do. Ironically, this doesn’t leave anyone feeler safer.
When team members are preoccupied with what they don’t want, the team will become dysfunctional: they lack trust, fear conflict, lack commitment, avoid accountability and fail to track their results [3]. A team without psychological safety is known to increase communication breakdowns, employee attrition and decreases team performance[4][5].
Here’s how you can increase team psychological safety using 3 types of psychological flexibility skills:
When you are present and allow difficult emotional experiences instead of reacting to them, you immediately disrupt your default reactions to stress, such as becoming autocratic, perfectionistic, critical, passive, submissive or distant. On a team, learning to tune in and hang out with discomfort creates the “pause” and presence people need to stay focused on their relationships and the tasks at hand.
More specifically, a team member who is aware of their emotional experience and can tolerate difficult moments will add stability, predictability, resilience, and trust to the team.
Our minds are wired to make snap judgments – about people, problems and projects – that are often unhelpful.  Buying into your thoughts and being fused with one way of seeing something can really muck up the chemistry and flow of a team. When you are able to expand your perspective and see problems, situations and people as complex and nuanced you create new possibilities.
A team member who can 1) hold their thoughts and biases lightly and 2) entertain multiple perspectives will add creativity, productivity, harmony and affinity to the team. 
Meaningful Moves
Without clear agreements about how to work together and what is to be accomplished, teams can easily lose their way. Navigating teamwork powerfully means staying clear about what matters and being willing to pivot to flexibly aligning your behavior with it in any moment. This agility allows everyone to move in the same direction, even when you come upon new challenges, hit dead ends, and explore new paths.
When team members consistently focus on what matters most, they are more likely to nurture their relationships and achieve meaningful results.
For more information on team coaching and psychological flexibility contact
More on psychological flexibility training in the workplace

[1] Kim, S., Lee, H., & Connerton, T. P. (2020). How Psychological Safety Affects Team Performance: Mediating Role of Efficacy and Learning Behavior. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 1581.
[2] Hayes SC, Luoma JB, Bond FW, Masuda A, Lillis J. Acceptance and commitment therapy: model, processes and outcomes. Behav Res Ther. 2006;44:1–25. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2005.06.006.
[3] Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team. New York: Jossey-Bass.
[4] Kim, S., Lee, H., & Connerton, T. P. (2020). How Psychological Safety Affects Team Performance: Mediating Role of Efficacy and Learning Behavior. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 1581.
[5] Escell Institute. (July 12, 2022). 4 Ways For Managers To Increase Psychological Safety

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