Demystifying Psychological Safety: Beyond the Buzzword

Psychological safety has become a buzzword, often misunderstood and sometimes even misused. At its core, psychological safety is about creating an environment where team members feel secure enough to take risks, express their ideas, and be themselves without fear of negative consequences. Why do we need it? Because it fosters innovation, growth, and a supportive workplace culture.

To truly establish psychological safety, simply learning tactics is not enough; often, it leads to the opposite effect. A more effective approach is to adopt the mindset and skills of a professional coach. Why a coach? Because one of the most critical and challenging skills a coach continually develops is the coaching mindset.

The coaching mindset is about being present and empathetic, extending beyond mere cognitive abilities to include the whole body and its intelligence. So, how can we develop this mindset? It’s tough to do alone, but here are some key elements to focus on:

  1. Mastering an Inner State of Courage, Calm, and Compassion: To be a trustworthy leader, fostering deep and meaningful relationships is essential. These relationships are crucial for both personal and team growth. Dominance, impatience, and frustration are barriers that only lead to closure and increased risks. Remember, people influence each other’s nervous systems; you can either be a source of stress or a beacon of calm and compassion. If you’re agitated, don’t expect full engagement and commitment. On the other hand, if you approach interactions with calmness and a non-judgmental curiosity about others, you’ll unlock much greater contributions from your team. Start by choosing which emotions you bring into the room; emotional self-awareness is the first step in learning to regulate and intentionally select your emotions to foster a safe and fully engaged environment.
  2. Switch off Your Meaning-Making Machine: Our ego-driven beliefs, opinions, and the need to control and find solutions often obstruct psychological safety. If we’re too caught up in our thoughts and judgments while listening to others, we can’t create a psychologically safe environment. When we listen to others and simultaneously seek solutions or give advice in our heads, we are not truly present. People can sense this; they notice our judgments and our urge to provide guidance, which signals a lack of faith in their abilities to find their own solutions and implies a lack of empathy. Creating a psychologically safe environment requires setting aside our egos and being fully present. It’s about listening without judgment or the impulse to intervene.
  3. Tune in to Others with Your Full Sensory Awareness: To establish a truly safe space, engage fully by utilizing your head, heart, and gut. Your head helps you understand the thought patterns, assumptions, beliefs, and stories of others. But intellectual understanding alone is not enough for real change. Your heart senses relational desires and underlying emotions like fear of rejection or the need to belong, which are critical for understanding motivations and fostering personal development. Meanwhile, your gut detects instincts related to self-preservation, sensing barriers that prevent others from moving forward, such as fears of losing status, job security, or relationships. These insights are essential for supporting individuals in overcoming their fears and feeling safe with you.

Psychological safety isn’t something that can be established overnight by simply deciding to do so. It requires a deep commitment to personal development and a fundamental shift in how we view our roles within teams and organizations. It means moving beyond identities tied to being the problem solver, the hero, or the rescuer. Psychological safety isn’t about us—it’s about creating a supportive environment that prioritizes the needs and well-being of others.

It starts with ourselves. How can we provide a psychologically safe space if we ourselves don’t feel safe? The need for control, the urge to manipulate others, the need to be liked,  the compulsion to prove our worth by ‘rescuing’ team members, or demonstrating superiority through advice—or even our judgments presented as facts—are all indicators of our own insecurity.

Therefore, psychologically safe environments cannot be created by individuals who lack self-esteem and emotional safety. The creation of such environments demands that leaders first undertake significant personal work. Only by addressing our own insecurities can we begin to foster a culture that genuinely supports the psychological safety of everyone involved.