How to Build and Support Psychologically Safe Workplaces

Episode 4.18: Understanding why “Psychologically Safe” workspaces are important is easy– it’s the “how” we make our spaces safe that can be a little more complicated. Joining us today to help us better understand this challenge are Dr. Karolin Helbig, Founding Partner of and Minette Norman, Founder and Principal of Minette Norman Consulting LLC, authors of The Psychological Safety Playbook: Lead More Powerfully by Being More Human. Here, they explain:

  • What it means for a workplace to be "psychologically safe";
  • The benefits of psychological safety in the workplace;
  • The five specific "plays" leaders can make to improve psychological safety within their teams; and
  • Importance of leadership authenticity in creating psychologically safe workplaces!

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Defining Psychological Safety

  • Psychological safety is a feeling that occurs when an individual is on a team where they’re invited to share openly without fear or anxiety. 
    • When individuals feel psychologically safe they’ll be more likely to do the following behaviors: share ideas, question decisions and groupthink, take risks, ask questions, and not fear the risk of failing. 
      • Groupthink is the pressure to conform and agree with everyone else. This arises from a lack of psychological safety and is an idea and inspiration killer. 


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  • Psychological safety is important because not only does it allow people to do important workplace activities, but they can also show up to do their best work being authentically themselves – the person they want to be. 
  • Individuals can usually detect when they are not in a psychologically safe workplace. Almost all employees have felt this at one time or another. 
  • Behaviors that occur when individuals feel psychologically unsafe include hiding their real perspective, feeling afraid to ask questions for fear of humiliation, and not feeling comfortable with being themselves.
    • Employees in these circumstances mask their identities and conform to the overarching group norms. 
    • Leaders in these circumstances may refuse to admit mistakes or show vulnerability. 
  • A lack of psychological safety harms a company’s culture because an organization will miss out on the diversity of viewpoints, ways of thinking, and experiences usually sought after in talent acquisition. 
  • A diverse workforce is only as diverse as creating conditions where everyone can show up as themselves, can speak up, and challenge even the group’s prevailing viewpoints and norms. Without this, a company truly won’t benefit from diverse hiring choices. 
  • Psychological safety in the workplace is not just a “nice-to-have,” so everyone feels comfortable. It ensures you get the most out of your diverse workforce to create high-performing teams.
  • A focus on creating psychologically safe workplaces attempts to help every employee do their best work.

How To Create Psychologically Safe Workplaces

  • Psychologically safe workplaces have to be created intentionally and cultivated deliberately. 
  • In Dr. Helbig and Ms. Norman’s book, they developed five “plays” centered around a high-level topic, with five specific “moves” or actions a leader can take. 
    • These moves are five tangible things a leader can do immediately to create a psychologically safe workplace. 
  • Those plays are: 
    • Communicate Courageously
    • Master the Art of Listening
    • Manage Your Reactions
    • Embrace Risk and Failure
    • Design Inclusive Rituals
  • Small actions that are done consistently make a big change in the psychological safety of your workplace. You have to know the people on your team. 
  • Here are suggestions on some specific changes you can make to create a psychologically safe workplace: 
    • Pay attention to the body language of those participating in group meetings. 
    • Be explicit on how individuals should take turns while participating in a discussion. 
      • For example, Ms. Norman’s team has a rule that no one speaks twice until everyone speaks once. 
      • Telling people explicitly that you will enforce this gives them time to prepare. If you have a team member who doesn’t like to be put on the spot, knowing they're going to be called on will give them the opportunity to think about what they want to say.
      • This also gives that team member much more equal speaking time organically. 
    • Create shared accountability teams and shared governance and employee advisory groups. These groups can come together in a structured way to assist leadership in supporting psychologically safe workplaces. 
      • Every member of every team can increase or decrease the sense of psychological safety for others.
    • Allow employees to become allies with each other and say “I care about the psychological safety and the inclusion of everyone in the group.” Then, they can change the behaviors of the workplace in a way that is positive for everybody, not just the dominant group.
      • An example is a male colleague speaking up for a female colleague to give her space to share as she gets talked over in a meeting. 
  • Any employee group (not just leadership or management) can utilize the playbook to take on plays and try out some of the moves. 
    • “It can be a very powerful tool to get these kinds of groups involved in really committing to change and committing to these new behaviors that we can try out as an experiment.” - Minette Norman 
  • You don't have to create a new mission or value statement to create psychological safety. 
    • Leaders can start small and say, “we're going to really work on becoming better listeners. What does that look like? And how might we individually practice that?”

Importance Of Authenticity In Creating Psychologically Safe Workplaces

  • Authenticity is one of the book's key messages, which is reflected in the subtitle “lead powerfully by being more human.”
  • Leaders need to learn to show up to work more authentically, to allow others to see them as whole human beings, not put on a role or a mask. 
  • This is much more effective for leading other people because people want to relate to other human beings, they can't relate to a mask.
  • Vulnerability is not easy. Leaders have embraced and trained in the traditional leadership model, which equates vulnerability to weakness. 
    • Leaders need to unlearn this notion and instead embrace authenticity and show up authentically.
  • Leaders should care about psychological safety and understand this is a vital factor for their teams. Leaders must intentionally cultivate a workplace culture of psychological safety, which will not grow just automatically.

Why Write A Psychologically Safe Workplace Playbook? 

  • Both Dr. Helbig and Ms. Norman came to write their book from a desire to improve how employees work together. 
  • A veteran of the tech industry, Ms. Norman became less interested in technology and increasingly interested in how human beings work together better over the course of her career. 
  • Dr. Helbig was a management consultant with McKinsey. During that time she discovered what makes humans effective leaders are developing leadership skills, not more intelligence. 
  • Dr. Helbig started working with Ms. Norman after meeting her at a psychological safety training, then they discovered they both had an interest in making material regarding how to create psychologically safe workplaces. 
    • “I really realized that from the very beginning of our collaboration was a fantastic example of psychological safety [...] we really practiced what we preach in our book.” - Dr. Karolin Helbig
  • Dr. Helbig and Ms. Norman wanted to bring the topic of psychological safety out of academia to demystify it and make it accessible to everyone. They aimed to get people to understand that “I can do something every day to create these changes.”
    • “That it isn't rocket science, but it's really just small behavioral change, that can increase the level of psychological safety and therefore, the inclusion, the performance, the innovation, and the sense of engagement in a team.” - Minette Norman 
  • The book was designed to be used in a non-linear way. Leaders can pick it up and investigate specific topics and actions without reading the preceding chapters. 

Leading Powerfully By Being More Human

  • Ms. Norman and Dr. Helbig’s book intentionally creates opportunities for leaders to lead more authentically by focusing on psychological safety. 
  • Readers can start from anywhere in the book, with any play, and jump right into it to learn something with meaning and value that can be used immediately. 
  • There are 25 actions that leaders can do right now by reading The Psychological Safety Playbook: Lead More Powerfully by Being More Human

Dr. Karolin Helbig Background 

Minette Norman Background 

  • BA in Drama and French from Tufts University
  • French theatre and cinema at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle
  • She began her career as Senior Technical Writer for Adobe Systems
  • Ms. Norman worked as the Principal I information Developer for Symantec
  • She served Autodesk for more than 20 years in several roles, culminating in her role as Vice President, Engineering Practice.
  • Ms. Norman was a Member Board of Directors for Equalize Health
  • Currently, she is a Keynote Speaker with The Lavin Agency, a Consulting Member for The Upside, and the Founder and Principal of Minette Norman Consulting, LLC 
  • Dr. Helbig is the co-author of The Psychological Safety Playbook: Lead More Powerfully by Being More Human



Ms. Norman email:

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