Trust and psychological safety in the staff room

By: Kylie de Klerk

Trust, vulnerability and feeling the emotional safety to be authentic, are feelings that are crucial for high-performing teams, innovation and a healthy organisational culture. Successful teams and organisations thrive on sharing knowledge, information and challenging the status quo. This is achieved when the fear of the personal risk associated with speaking out and being fully interactive is minimised. Risks of being shamed, bullied, isolated and undermined are very real for many people in the workplace. Fears of negative repercussions for a creative idea failing and developmental areas being made visible are justified. Motivating interactions and engagement in the school workplace cannot be teased out by incentives or applying pressure. Rather, involvement and contribution is self-motivated and natural when psychological safety is well-established within a team and organisation.

State of Mind

Dr Amy Edmonson, a professor at Harvard Business School, pioneered the term ‘psychological safety’. She described psychological safety as people’s perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context (such as a workplace). At the heart of psychological safety is trust. Trusting colleagues enough to be vulnerable and open to taking personal risks. Those who volunteer their opinions or ideas and venture outside the box, risking rejection and conflict, and are likely to feel a higher degree of trust with colleagues. The responsibility of creating trust falls on everyone’s shoulders but those in positions of authority and leadership carry more weight as they need to be highly attuned to signs of a climate of fear and feelings of risk within a department and whole school. On the other side of fear and anxiety is collaboration, job satisfaction and enjoying relationships with colleagues.

Impact of Psychological Safety in Teams and Organisations

Studies link psychological safety to an individual’s ability to engage in creative work and feelings of vitality. Other studies have linked feeling safe in the workplace with better information sharing. There is increasing information to show that speaking up, challenging the status quo, innovation and challenging organisational functioning are all linked to feelings of psychological safety. The potential for organisational performance and innovation is deeply rooted in the degree of psychological safety and risk aversion felt by the people in it.


“On the other side of fear and anxiety are collaboration, job satisfaction and enjoying relationships with colleagues.”






Assessing Team Safety

How psychologically safe is the team? In some instances the lack of trust and fear is palpable. The climate and behaviours indicate the safety mindset felt by individuals which are also usually reflected in performance and the workplace culture. Here are some questions to ask to gauge how psychologically safe the team is:

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

Safety in Numbers

Building a psychologically safe environment in the workplace requires consistency and commitment from everyone. Psychological safety is a team activity and everyone benefits in the same way that everyone needs to contribute. There are no quick fixes or day-out ‘team-building exercises’ to develop psychological safety, rather a consistent process of cumulative actions and reactions that build up an environment of trust.

Building a Psychologically Safe Team

School leaders and HoDs/HoLAs can facilitate creating an atmosphere of psychological safety.

  1. Admit there is room for improvement. Lead by example.
  2. Define what trust looks like for the team and the behaviours that create trust.
  3. Open up channels of communication and be available.
  4. Prioritise self- and social-awareness. Modify reactions and responses appropriately. Treat others as they need to be treated, not how you need to be treated.
  5. Accept failure as a learning experience and part of creativity and avoid blame.
  6. Promote curiosity as a form of problem-solving.
  7. Lead constructive conflict conversations within the team.
  8. Extend responsibility to others – this shows trust.
  9. Be vulnerable as a leader. Admit flaws, ask for help and include the team in decision making
  10. Recognise and reward contributions.

Psychological safety is a key element not only for teamwork and organisational performance but also for individual fulfilment. Feeling safe within a team is the key to participation and reaching full potential. Breaking down barriers to creativity, collaboration and purpose-filled work starts with feeling comfortable to take acceptable risks in the workplace without the fear of personal catastrophe. Fear is a huge driver of withdrawal from the workplace. For teams and individuals to reach a high-performance and innovative state, psychological safety must be prioritised through intentional behaviours so that people are motivated to engage and enjoy participating without reservation.

About the author

Kylie has worked with people at all levels of an organization, in diverse economies and across multiple culture groups.
Over a decade’s experience working amongst, leading and developing teams in demanding and high-performance environments has bought out the teamwork artist in her and her aptitude for building an interactive and stronger culture from the ground up.

When working with clients Kylie brings intent, energy, integrity and a little fun.