How To Create A Safe Environment For Your Team

Can your team be open with each other?

Google seems a bit obsessed with learning about people.

I kind of like that.

One of the areas they explored for a 2-year project was to figure out why some project teams succeeded and others struggled.

They looked at all the outlying possibilities like luck or the type of idea and tried to even things out.

They found 5 important factors for team success:

  • Dependability
  • Structure & Clarity
  • Meaning
  • Impact
  • Psychological Safety

The emphasis on the last one is mine. I wanted to look into that a little more and see why it’s important and how business leaders can make sure their teams feel safe at work.

What Type of Safety Are We Talking About?

The meaning of “safe” in this context is when a team member feels safe and secure enough to share ideas. Any ideas.

I saw a meme somewhere yesterday, but I can’t find it today. But it basically had a quote that said something like:

Remember, someone once brought up the idea to combine sharks and tornadoes in a movie.

I loved that.

When you were in school were you ever afraid to raise your hand to answer a question? Did you panic a little (or maybe a lot) when the teacher would call on you when you for an answer?

It’s very common. Schools, at least in my experience, weren’t the type of place where students could feel psychologically safe.

Ridicule from other students and even from some teachers (and maybe parents at home) make it feel unsafe. You end up not sharing ideas because you’re afraid of that ridicule.

And it’s no different in the adult world. Amongst your friends sometimes or peer groups. At industry conferences. And especially in the office where things aren’t safe.

Fear of Failure

When it’s all over, does failure really matter?

There seems to be a switch in human life.

Some people have the switch turned on one way where failure really motivates them to not experience failure again. I’ve read a number of sports autobiographies where the athlete said they didn’t so much love winning as much as they hate losing.

Ever hear an athlete say that before?

Michael Jordan is probably the most famous example. He had a few failures early in life. Not making his varsity team. Not winning much in the NBA for his first six or so years.

Obviously he loved winning, but when you see him win those championships it could be interpreted in another way. That he loved avoiding the feeling of failure.

So some people take failure and do everything they can to avoid it by focusing on winning.

On the other side of the switch are those people that still have a hatred of failure. And the accompanying feeling. But instead of pushing to win as a way to avoid it they shut down. They stop trying new things. They stay in their safe zones for the rest of their life.

As another coping mechanism they might lash out at others that try new things and fail.

It all results from the fear of failure.

Safe = Success

As Google found, part of what makes a successful team is safety. Feeling like you can express new ideas. Try new things. Learn from failure and keep pushing until something good happens.

It’s kind of like having the mentality of What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

And what really do businesses have to lose?

Teams usually aren’t working on things that will bring down the entire business. We laugh and joke about businesses making gaffes on social media and things like that, but how much does it really matter?

The business almost always bounces back.

How To Create A Safe Environment

Let’s get into a few tips for fostering a safe environment:

Weed Out The Damaged People: I think this is a big one. There are a number of people that are just too damaged by failure that they avoid it at all costs. And the real damage comes when they bring down others. You’ll see these people snickering in the office when others share an idea. You’ll see them gossiping and trying to bring others down. It’s not always obvious, but it exists.

You might be able to help them. If your culture has been negative for awhile the person might just be adapting. If you work to change the culture they might come around. But you might also need to make a drastic change.

Focus On Solutions When Mistakes Happen: Look, mistakes are going to happen. I know that I have to watch how I react to the mistakes of others even though I’ve made plenty of mistakes on my own. When a mistake happens look at the business first. What process is broken that resulted in the mistake? What can you fix so that it doesn’t happen again?

And in the short-term, what’s the solution to right the ship? That’s where the focus is and it’s good for the entire culture. If you get the entire team focusing on solutions they often won’t sweat it much when mistakes and failure happen. They’ll be too busy pushing forward.

Lead By Example: This is the biggest one. You can’t expect your team to feel safe if you’re the one snickering at ideas in meetings. Or if you’re belittling a team member when they make a silly mistake.

Everyone fails. Including yourself. If you want a team that succeeds it might require a change in your own mindset and behavior.


Look, nobody is saying you want to create a workplace where mistakes are encouraged. But there is a balance. People trying things often leads to success. Embrace the ones that work so hard to avoid failure. They usually push past any outside judgment. They put enough pressure on themselves.

And also look to foster a safe environment. One where everyone feels like they can ask a question. Where they feel like they can pitch an idea as ridiculous as Sharknado.

You never know what will work. Google found that feeling safe at work is a key to success. It makes sense to pay attention to their findings.

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