Establishing Psychological Safety: There is No Fear in this Dojo

David Layton

David / 27 January 2020

Psychological safety is one of the key factors that separates a truly cohesive team from just a group of people on a project, but just how does one achieve it?

As leader of a team, either formally or circumstantially, you need to establish at least some base-level of trust along a few different axes. To understand those axes, I want you ask yourself what you think are the most common workplace fears. Your list may differ, but here's mine:

Common Workplace Fears are the Bane of Psychological Safety

  1. This project is doomed to fail, and when it does, someone at the bottom will be blamed. All I can really do is keep my head down to ensure it isn’t me.
  2. If I point out a problem without the solution, I will be seen a negative or “not a team player”.
  3. Even if I propose a solution, it will just be ignored just like it was last time.
  4. If I fail, I will be passed over for promotion, a raise, or even fired.

Often fears take on a life of their own and can grow to near absurdity when fed on a consistent diet of ambiguity and uncertainty. You can see this clearly when a team is new or facing a change. To explore this let’s think about a specific change a team might face — new leadership — even if you have been in the role a while, this is a good thought experiment.

Common Trepidation of New Leadership for the Team

  1. He/She is new and won’t have a clue what’s going on?
  2. He/She is new and will get hooked by person X’s Bullsh*t
  3. I have no connection with this person. They will have their own agenda and me, as a person, is not apart of it.
  4. How will I be judged by this new Leader?
  5. New leader, same as the old — same biases, same politics

These concerns centre around what is unknown about the new leader and the consequent absence of trust. Common wisdom dictates that trust takes time to establish, but I’d like to challenge that. Consider extreme conditions, particularly a battlefield. Strangers in the same foxhole undoubtedly establish trust quickly. When the stakes are high, everyone wants the same thing ( to survive), and there is no ambiguity, trust thrives.

Trust and Psychological Safety

So how can you, as a leader, accelerate trust in the same way? Actively get aligned with the team.

Like soldiers in a foxhole, you're team must also be all-on-the-same-side. First, talk to each member of your team one-on-one and ask them about their hopes and fears for the company and the project. Then, ask them what they would do in your place. When you're done, gather the team and feed what you have learned back to the team. If they have been honest with you, it will dispel the first two fears above about your leadership (at least for now). You’ve also taken your first step to addressing fear #3, having "no connection", because each person in the room will hear some part of what they said to you reflected back to them . It proves that you listened to them, but you’re going to have to keep doing this (see my post on active listening).

Wave a flag

Being forthright builds trust; let’s supercharge that. As a new leader, people are uncertain about you partly because they don’t know your values (contributing to fears 3, 4, and 5). So tell them. At every possible opportunity you want to highlight your values with your actions, but on day one (or today if you have been in this position for some time), the best you can do is tell them what your values are . Unfortunately, most leader shy away from this; but consequently, it will mean more when you do it.

Values for Establishing Psychological Safety

The values you choose should, above all, address the general workplace fear discussed above. Note: You should also look to any published company values an see if there is some alignment there.

For me and my list, I like to use the Extreme Programming (XP) values composed and championed by Kent Beck, but tailored to a given team, project or organisation. Though I'll list them here unmodified:


We will do what is needed and asked for, but no more. This will maximise the value created for the investment made to date. We will take small simple steps to our goal and mitigate failures as they happen. We will create something we are proud of and maintain it long term for reasonable costs.


Everyone is part of the team and we communicate face to face daily. We will work together on everything from requirements to code. We will create the best solution to our problem that we can together.


Take every iteration commitment seriously by delivering working software. Demonstrate our software early and often then listen carefully and make any changes needed. Talk about the project and adapt our process to it, not the other way around.


Everyone gives and feels the respect they deserve as a valued team member. Everyone contributes value even if it’s simply enthusiasm. Developers respect the expertise of the customers and vice versa. Management respects our right to accept responsibility and receive authority over our own work.


Tell the truth about progress and estimates. Don’t document excuses for failure because we plan to succeed. Don’t fear anything because no one ever works alone. We will adapt to changes when they happen.

Now that your values are known, dispel fears that they are just abstract, pretty words. Explain how they explicitly apply to the team and translate into action. Address new leader fear #4 “how will I be judged” directly by tying telling them without reservation that they will be judge on these values. To that end lay out a clear set of “Rights and Responsibilities”.

Right and Responsibilities for Psychological Safety

The rights you choose should define what you are offering as a leader; whereas the responsibilities define what you expect from them. They may also express the circumstances and outside forces you will be protected them from.

Example Rights

  1. Respect.
  2. Good-faith information.
  3. Have commitments made to you honoured.
  4. A safe environment where people have the opportunity to make mistakes, and to have those mistakes recognised as valuable learning opportunities.

Example Responsibilities

  1. Being willing to collaborate extensively within your team.
  2. Validating your work to the best of your ability.
  3. Proactively looking for ways to improve your or your team’s performance throughout the project.
  4. Not accepting work currently outside the current iteration without agreement by the team.

These lists will tend to be much, much longer. Later, you need to make sure you communicate your decisions and explain how those values drove those decisions.

Fear #5, Politics and Agenda

Next, you need to address your motivations and intents. Again, just be frank with them. These are my fears. These are my hopes and dreams. This is how I aim to achieve them, and this is how you are apart of it. Tell them about your vision. Tell them why you think this team will succeed and why your opinion is credible. If it is informed by the conversations you’ve just had with the team members, you should get buy-in. Regardless, it helps them understand you and interpret your actions correctly.

Feedback is Essential for Psychological Safety

Lastly, you need to setup regular, formal feedback sessions. The best feedback is regular and informal, but you’ll never get that until you’ve done three things:

  1. Trained them in to provide constructive feedback.
  2. Formed a habit of providing constructive feedback.
  3. Shown them that providing feedback to you is not a waste of time (i.e. build a track record of solving these problems well).

Hold a retrospective as soon as you can (after you have completed our other exercises). Find the low hanging fruit. Deal with those problems immediately and let the team know as soon as you have done them.

Your biggest challenge as a leader

Lastly, start tackling the bigger issues. Keep them updated on your progress. Elicit more feedback on how well you addressed those issue and what the next issues are. Protect your team from their fears. Treat their issues with empathy and urgency. And never stop. There is no place for fear in your team.