an indoor plant growing in the background with a large headshot of Jennifer Davis-Allison, the guest on this episode of DDI's Leadership 480 podcast on how to create psychological safety on your team


How to Create Psychological Safety on Your Team

Leaders who create psychological safety can transform their team's performance. Learn tips and get best practices for how to create psychological safety on your team.

Publish Date: August 2, 2022

Episode Length: 43 minutes

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In this Episode

In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, organizational talent and community development expert, Jennifer Davis-Allison, joins DDI to discuss how to create psychological safety on your team. Get the definition of psychological safety, learn why it's so important in the workplace, and get practical tips to help you reinforce psychological safety with your team members. 


Beth Almes:

Hi leaders, and welcome back to the Leadership 480 Podcast. I'm your host, Beth Almes. And today's topic is one that can help you transform performance on your team in really unexpected ways. I'm talking about creating an environment of psychological safety where people feel comfortable expressing themselves without being afraid that they're going to face negative, personal or professional consequences. 

Here to talk with me today is Jennifer Davis-Allison. Jennifer has spent decades in talent organizational and community development to help leaders think, talk, and act better. She's worked with DDI for a long time as one of our consultants, as well as owns her own consulting firm. Jen, it is such a pleasure to welcome you to the Leadership 480 Podcast.

Jennifer Davis-Allison:

Oh, thank you very much, Beth. I'm so glad to be here.

Beth Almes:

So let's start by talking about this concept of psychological safety. What is it and why is it such a hot and important topic in leadership right now?

Jennifer Davis-Allison:

It's really interesting because as I thought about the topic myself, one of the things I experienced was that there are practices and approaches and tools that I've actually acquired, used, and developed along the way that today they're reflected in and they are codified in this term psychological safety. 

So one of the interesting definitions I came across in this codifying of it was this idea of an environment of rewarded vulnerability. What does that mean? That sounds really powerful. And so I really have to think about that. And for me, it's about having the conditions or the environment that can best support some of the aspects of living that we are dealing with right now, like diversity, like agility, innovation, creativity, we use these terms, but what does it take to actually foster them and bring them about? And I think this term psychological safety is beginning to really capture that, right?

Beth Almes:

Yeah. So tell me a little bit, as we look at opening up vulnerability, how does that start to change the team dynamic? So if you let people be a little bit more vulnerable, what do you get out of it?

Jennifer Davis-Allison:

What do you get out of it? Well, one of the things that happens, it's not even just so much that you let people be vulnerable as people allow themselves to be vulnerable. And in order for me to allow myself to be vulnerable, certain things have to be happening for me internally. 

I have to have a level of trust in the environment that I'm in. I need to feel safe. It means that I feel a connection with the environment, with the people around me. It means that I feel somehow that I fit and I belong. And that what I have is both a value to the individuals and to the environment.

When people are feeling like that people are contributing, people are taking the initiative. People are generative of their ideas and they're thinking, and those translate for organizations, especially in the information economy, into results like innovative and creative ideas, new ways of seeing and doing things, and a willingness to go beyond what's expected, right? You have performance. So there's a lot of benefits in return to having an environment where people allow themselves to be vulnerable, rather powerful.

Beth Almes:

In creating that safe environment where people feel comfortable to be vulnerable and share their ideas, they're not afraid they're going to get attacked for it, I think a lot of leaders, particularly if they're newer, but it could be anybody, even if you've been in the job a long time, but you might not realize how much your personal traits and tendencies affect the mood in the atmosphere of the group. 

A lot of people think they're much more open than they really come off and appear. How do leaders start to get a sense of what they're doing and how it affects the tone for their whole group?

Jennifer Davis-Allison:

Yeah. One of the most important things for leaders in my estimation has really become the extent to which a leader is self-aware. Especially the type and style of leadership that we are talking about here. So I believe that historically, leadership is more being seen, it's from the external. What a leader manifests either in terms of their personality, the things that I can see them saying and doing. And oftentimes leadership was encapsulated in a role or a position.

I think that leadership right now is a lot more personal, right? You can lead at any level within an organization, within a community, within your family. You can demonstrate leadership. And that type of leadership, that personal essence of leadership comes from internal self-awareness. 

So it's not just about what you do and how it affects others, it's also about what do you know about yourself and how well do you manage yourself in a way that people are willing and able to follow you. Right? So for a leader to be, self-aware takes some work, you've got to do your own work, right? And you need to know things about yourself such as what you value and how that gets communicated, how that fits in the environment that you're operating. You need to know what you're good at, what you're not good at, what you're bringing to the table.

And you also need to know what are the things, because we all have them that get in the way for you, that can trigger the kind of response or outcome that you don't necessarily choose to have. And there are lots of things that contribute to what are our unconscious or voluntary reactions. They often live in places called blind spots. 

The field that I work in is very much geared around learning whether you are doing it as an individual or as an organization. And one of the first stages of learning is awareness. That's the most powerful stage to me, because you can't get it into the others without that awareness piece being turned on. Leaders are accountable for their level of awareness starting with themself. Does that make sense for you?

Beth Almes:

Absolutely. So you talk about the hard work of self-awareness and I think this is not an easy thing sometimes, because if you ask me to describe myself it might be different than how others might describe me, or I think I'm good at something and I think, "Oh yeah, I create this great environment in a meeting," and I don't know that everyone else is like, "Do you know you shut people down? Do you know your reaction to things or I see your face when I'm saying something and it makes me not want to say it?" 

And you don't know that you're doing that. You think, "I'm super open, why wouldn't you tell me something?" So as part of that work of self-awareness, as a leader, how do you start getting a sense of how you're doing in this area and how your self-perception might match up with the perception of others?

Jennifer Davis-Allison:

I think that we are in a wonderful place and space these days. So the powerful work that's been done to support things like emotional intelligence, right? The work that's been done around neuroscience, which has moved from research into application, we actually have the tools I like to help us be better human beings, which is really what we are to start out with. And we spend a lot of time learning and knowing about everything else except what it takes to be a human being.

So for me, there is a level of willingness and want to that's required on the part of leaders to know themselves. And then the tools that are available can start with. Assessment instruments are a very interesting part that just starts to give you some baseline understanding. And I think it's more verbalizing for yourself some things that you might already know about yourself, which is very powerful. And there's a lot of value in that because it gives you intentionality. I'm not just doing something because "I'm good at it" or I like it. I'm good at it, I like it and I also have a conscious awareness of the effect it has when I do or say these things.

And so it starts for me with a sense of willingness on the part of leaders and then the other powerful tool that leaders have access to is feedback, which again is about the work. I have to be willing to solicit feedback to even hear it, because many times feedback is coming towards you and you are just not paying any attention, right? So you have to be willing to accept and allow feedback to come in, understanding that you get to make the final decision on what you do with that information, but first, you have to access it, right?

So my experience taught me that those are two particularly important steps that a leader can take to start the process of becoming self-aware. And now with that in hand, which is a big part of emotional intelligence, the first two quadrants are self-awareness and self-management. I'm aware now I can better make choices about what I want to handle and do about what I know about myself, then I can start to really deal with others. How does this match up with what I see others' needs might be, right?

Beth Almes:

That part is so powerful I think as we talk here about both your self-awareness of your styles and then where it matches up with others. And I'm thinking as psychological safety is such an important part of the conversation around diversity and inclusion, recognizing how you come to the conversation and how other people may be coming very differently. 

So for example, I come from a family where we're happy to air what's bothering us or talk about our grievances or things like that and no worries about saying something like that. Also, is part of my style, if I'm frustrated or upset, you're happy to bring that. Now other people might be coming and you have to draw them out to get what's bothering them or it might be different. So how do you start to combine that sense of like, "Here's my style, but how do I adjust for the people around me?"

Jennifer Davis-Allison:

Right. That becomes again, everything in learning starts with awareness, right? So I need to be aware of others and I need to have again, this sense of openness to finding out who they are. For me, I think about it as being able to honor what people bring to the table, understand and discern how they might be showing up, and then helping to start this give and take. 

One of the wonderful things I think about diversity, but it also speaks to why psychological safety is so important, so if we're equating psychological safety to this environment of vulnerability, creating an environment where people can be vulnerable, right? If someone is different than I am, I have to understand that I may not get everything about what they need or who they are right. I have to accept that I might be wrong, which automatically makes me again vulnerable.

So the environment has to be an environment that allows me to be willing to do that, to be wrong, to take risks, but to use my ability to get to know others and what they need, and feel that I value meeting the needs that they may have, is that resonating? And to what extent do I want to meet other people's needs? Well, to the extent that we are here together and there is something that we want to accomplish together, then the extent to which we can meet each other's needs increases our ability to accomplish what we want together, right? We have a shared interest.

So if I bring it to the workplace, the workplace is a space where there's shared interest. We have some outcomes that we want to accomplish. We want to accomplish it, we need to accomplish it together. Here's what I'm bringing. Now, I need to know what you are bringing so I can access it and so that we can work together to be able to make that happen. So there is an impetus for leaders to want to get to know the people that they are supporting and that are supporting them in getting the job done, right?

Beth Almes:

Then it's so funny as you're talking to me, I can hear you doing some of these things that you're checking in with me that do things resonate. You're asking me along the way. It's amazing to me as I'm talking to you, I'm like, "She's doing it right now." I love the way you're asking along the way if things are resonating and checking in with me or if you're in a meeting, people opening to say, "I'm not following, or I'm not quite on board with that," or things like that.

One of the things I wanted to ask about too, as you've talked about vulnerability, that's a little bit scary for people, and that's the thing of... Especially if I'm setting the tone as the leader for the group, I want people to feel comfortable sharing their ideas at work. I want them to feel safe and even sharing some personal things about themselves, that's how we all get along and things like that. 

But as the leader, you can also struggle with boundaries too, of course, I want you to feel safe, but also this is not your platform to go on about every single little thing. So how do you set boundaries on your team about, "Here's how we can talk about things safely without letting things go totally off the rails that were going a little bit too far in some direction."

Jennifer Davis-Allison:

Yeah. It's interesting that you even framed the question that way. Recently I had a client that I was working with in an organization. They were a small team and it's a small agency and they were struggling with that. They have a high sense of openness. They're a very relational environment. And yet where they have hit a bit of a wall, is that idea of boundaries. So how do you say, oh, bring all of you, oh, but not that part, not that part to individuals and they still feel safe? 

And so as I'm growing myself in my understanding of this and in a more intentional way doing it, because when I started doing some of the practices, I love DDI, that's why I spent a lot of decades with DDI. I found that DDI gave me the how and the why of a lot of the practices and approaches I have. This concept of psychological safety is giving me a big target for what is it that we're trying to accomplish with this how and this why.

So within this organization, one of the things I found around boundaries is you establish boundaries by norming. How we operate is as important as what we're trying to do, and how we go about doing is as important as why. And oftentimes we start with what. Okay, our purpose is, and this is why it's important. That's really great. 

The next most important question to me is, so how do we want to go about doing this? And I think especially when it comes to creating psychological safety, doing that as a shared activity promotes accountability. It's not just what makes me psychologically safe. I don't know what would make you psychologically safe. So we need to talk about that, right? Once you start to talk about that, people have made their first investment in the relationship, in the work, in whatever you're trying to accomplish. And by doing that, they also start to hold themselves accountable, is this mutual accountability?

Beth Almes:

I think a lot of people who are thinking of this topic. It's one thing to say like, "I love the idea that my team has psychological safety. They're tracking with everything that's going on," and another to actually practice and create that environment. 

Lots of people are like, "I'm totally bought in, great idea. What do I do about it? What are the practical habits and things I can do to reinforce psychological safety on my team?"

Jennifer Davis-Allison:

I look at almost what I do inside the work that I do when I'm doing workshops, training opportunities, and sessions. And the most important thing for me is to start with the culture and the environment in which we're operating. You have to start with, do people feel like they belong there and that they own space inside that room inside their own learning? I think the same thing has to happen with organizations. What can leaders do? Start to check in on the environment that you have and the extent to which people feel like they belong and they own it, right?

And you can do that in very simple ways. Again, part of this is me drawing from my own practices and approaches. And it's also what I'm hearing reflected back in organizations that I'm working with, what organizations are doing, but what other thought leaders are also thinking about and doing. And one of the interesting things about feeling like you belong, when I first started in my practice, I used to go into a lot of spaces where I did not feel that I belong. I knew that others didn't think I belong. I knew I didn't always feel that I belong. So I had to learn how to create that sense of belonging for myself.

And so there are aspects of risk that involve being vulnerable. Asking questions allows you to model your own vulnerability, right? But also gives you a chance to start to be included. Making eye contact with people, it's an amazing thing about our humanity. We read each other's eyes in order to get a sense of whether we trust each other, like each other, want to get to know each other, greeting people. 

Those are behaviors that leaders need to become self-aware about and pay attention to who they do that to naturally and unconsciously too, because they feel familiar, who they may not do that to, and why? Is it because you don't think they belong or you don't feel comfortable with them? Because know that you're sending messages. So there's that sense of inclusion.

There is this opportunity to let people feel, now, we both mentioned these terms we're using, vulnerability, that it creates the things like risk or safety. And people need to be put into a place where they feel like they can make mistakes. They can learn from their mistakes. So how are you communicating that within your team? How do you establish that as a ground rule? And we are all moving into this desire to have what I'm finding is a different orientation to the kind of culture we are creating in our organizations, which means if we're moving to something new and different means that we're moving away from something.

So there was a culture, we have existed in the culture that may not have had all of these things available or accessible in the same way. So there are things we need to let go of. We need to be as mindful of what we're letting go of is what we want, right? 

So some of our organizational culture has been built on power and authority and some of our culture has been built heavily on right or wrong or intolerance for mistakes. You have to break that down, acknowledge that existed, and then unpack that so you can move to a culture that says, "You know what? Mistakes do happen, and what's our level of tolerance for that? And how do we handle that when it happens?" And people then can learn how to do that.

Those things promote... I remember, when was it? Couple decades ago, this idea of learning organizations became something that companies were focusing on. Not only do individuals need to learn, but the organizational unit needs to set up an environment where people can learn, that promotes safety. And then helping your people do this. 

So you are doing it, you're establishing some norms about how we can do this together. And then how do I get you engaged around this? Coaching. I coach you on other things, the technical parts of the job. How do I help coach you around these other environmental aspects of the job, the how we operate if I believe that those things are as important as to what we have to do?

Beth Almes:

So I'm hearing from you, Jen, a lot of this too is about how leaders monitor their own reactions to a mistake or to something maybe they disagree with initially. And that can be hard to pull back your own natural reaction to something, but it matters a lot when you're the leader in the room too if somebody either admits a mistake that they made or they share something that you think is totally off base, the way you react to that sets a huge tone. 

So how do you start to think about your reactions, both verbal and nonverbal and think about how you're coming across then as a leader and setting that tone of psychological safety? Are there repercussions when people admit something or share something that might be difficult or uncomfortable?

Jennifer Davis-Allison:

Yeah. I think that this really works. When I mentioned that at DDI one of the things that I came away with that carries all still, has been some of the practices. And one of the most powerful ones around our principles is "share." The capacity for a leader to share appropriately is important. And one of the biggest things that leaders can share is how they feel. I am sorry. I made a mistake. I wanted to do this, however, what I actually did was this. 

Those are things about you that no one would have access to unless you put it out there. And when you put it out there, I find that it creates a level of authenticity about who you are. Being a leader is not about always being right. Even around psychological safety, I can't guarantee that I will always create the safest environment for you. Upfront, that's not my job, it's back and forth.

However, I do need to also be not only self-aware, but when I am aware, then I need to share what's going on for me. And I also need to hold myself accountable if I'm acting outside of our norms, which I might. I have a friend that she talks about... Yeah, I mentioned blind spots as something that the leaders are not often aware of. 

We are also not often aware of our biases. Some we are, but many of them exist unconsciously. So she talks about bad moments, bias awareness moments. When you get confronted by a bias that you didn't know you had, that may have triggered a response you didn't want, in that moment what else can I do but share with you what's going on for me?

And I think these are principles that you don't just put out there for others to be accountable to do it for doing, you need to model them and then you need to help others hold themselves accountable and then you will hold yourself accountable. And now we've created this shared culture in which we exist.

Beth Almes:

This concept of those bias awareness moments is really interesting. And when we think about our own reactions to things as leaders, that's such a powerful way to think about it, it may be something like every time a certain person on the team gives an idea you don't realize it but you're doing a little eye roll or as soon as they start to speak you're pushing them forward or becoming aware when a topic is addressed, you start to shut down, whether you're virtual or in person you're crossing your arms and things like that. I think getting to those moments and then realizing what your reaction is and understanding that is such a powerful and hard thing to do by the way.

Jennifer Davis-Allison:

It's powerful and it's hard. And also what I appreciate about it is because now we are translating these concepts into behavioral things, things that we're either saying and doing. Now I have greater control, believe it or not, myself. So how do I interrupt this becomes the next step, right? So when this happens, I do this. 

So what is it that you would want to do instead? Being able to think about, what else might I want to do? So when I don't know, Cynthia starts to talk, I get agitated or I get impatient, what I would prefer to do is pause and maybe ask a question, right? Could you explain that further for me, right?

So I've set up almost a conditioning for myself that can now start to change that practice, right? So I'm gaining more control over something that I used to do unconsciously by first making it conscious to myself and then making a conscious choice to act differently in that moment. And the mind is so powerful that we actually have the ability to retrain our mind once we allow it access to some of the unconscious things that it does, right?

Beth Almes:

So in the virtual environment some of this can be really challenging. And I think about, sometimes you're in a large meeting or in a group and maybe for whatever reason people don't all have their cameras on. And that can be really scary because in a live environment I could always tell, are people engaged? Are they nodding along with me? Are they totally looking at me like I'm a crazy person? And when you're speaking into the void of the digital environment, you don't know what people are doing. 

You don't know if they're even paying attention or if they're multitasking, or if they're sitting on the other end of their computers furious at you. You don't know. As a leader, are there some small prompts if somebody on your team is talking or as you're facilitating the meeting some small things you can do to encourage that environment of psychological safety to let them know they're not just speaking out into that void?

Jennifer Davis-Allison:

Into the void. There's this term and one of the norms that... I had a recent session I'm doing, a learning journey with a client. And it was wonderful. We have a small intimate group. And this one is not virtual. So even though it's not virtual, I want to almost use them and then I'll apply it virtually as an example. When you have a small group, whether it's virtual or in person, there is more pressure put on everyone to be present. There's no place to hide. When a question gets put out there or a thought, et cetera, there you are.

So setting up again those norms became really, really, really important. And one of the ones that the group wanted to have is to be present, right? To remind ourselves that being present is important. So what does that look like? Virtually, I ask the same thing, I ask folks to be present. So if that's the norm, here are some ways that it looks to the extent that you feel comfortable, safe, and are able to turn on your cameras. Why? Because it allows all of us to feel that much more connected to each other, right? So that's one piece, you got to ask for what you want and what you expect of folks and ask them to buy in. You're also giving people some criteria how that's okay.

Participation, ask for it. You want participation? Ask for it. Everyone starts on this Zoom call, this meeting is really important, right? So definitely we'll ask for you to share. I also let people know based upon again their comfort, know that if I don't hear from them soon to appear in your local neighborhood will be me asking your opinion, right? So that people can weigh in and understand what those dynamics are. If you are not comfortable when called, then just let us know that.

So there are a lot of things that I found having spent decades in face-to-face learning situations. I was hesitant to move into a Zoom environment. I was, "How can you create the level of relationship that feeds my soul and feeds me when I'm doing my work when you're virtual?" Having spent time on the box in a virtual environment, I have found that there are new and exciting ways to create connectivity virtually. It simply means though that all of those things that we need to do when we are face-to-face, we need to deepen and enhance our skills and our intent to accomplish the same things. You just need to put in more time and more intentional.

Beth Almes:

Absolutely. And you even have some tools, you can use the little emojis or things like that as people are talking, a little thumbs up as they go goes a long way for encouragement.

Jennifer Davis-Allison:

It really does. And asking people to express themselves that way. I ask people before we start a session to... I have a scale that I share with them, a visual scale to pick what sheep they are, but start to identify how are you coming into this meeting and what do you want to keep? And what do you want to be aware of? What do you want to throw away? So we talk about the things that we want, the environment that we want. And I have found people lean into being able to do that. And it means doing it more than one time. So just because you did it one time and everybody doesn't show for it doesn't mean that you don't come back the next time and continue to do that.

Beth Almes:

As we start to wrap up our discussion, one thing I wanted to ask you though is about, there's a very practical concern for leaders that they want to create an environment of openness, and that's good. And they want people to feel comfortable sharing, but they've also got something they've got to get done. 

So they're usually crunched for time, and while it sounds, we've got one hour to figure something out or to have this meeting and while I would love to entertain all comments on all sides and things like that, there's also a reality that we need to focus. We need to keep things moving and we need to get done what we need to get done. So as a leader, how do you balance openness and inclusion with focus?

Jennifer Davis-Allison:

I don't believe that they're mutually exclusive, right? I do think that inclusivity does take time, participation takes time, and how much time requires your level of skill. So you've got to practice, practice, practice, and facility with how you set up the climate, et cetera. So that's one. 

Number two, I found that time invested up front to establish climate, to establish expectations, to establish things like clear direction, what do we need to accomplish? And in how much time do we have to accomplish it? Really frees people up to contribute and deliver within the frame that they've been given. And it's amazing the quality of what they're able to deliver, because you've already given them an idea of the how, how they need to go about doing it.

So we all come with the same amount of time every day for 480 minutes as leaders that we get a chance to put into practice. And I don't think that they're mutually exclusive, our ability to be focused and direct and deliver can be managed or engaged with allowing people to feel safe and explore and participate and be involved.

Beth Almes:

I love that, bringing people in. We've all got this time together and bringing them into that time pressure of what you've got to accomplish is such a great way to share that focus while giving people a little bit of freedom. 

So the last thing I have for you is a question I ask all of our guests on this show. Can you share with me a moment of leadership that changed your life for better, for worse to make you say, I want to lead like that, or I never want to lead like that?

Jennifer Davis-Allison:

I want to lead like that or I never want to lead like that. Oh, therefore it's so many moments of that. But I think the one that comes to mind is what launched me on starting my own business, right? So I was in an organization and at the time I would say that I felt comfortable challenging the status quo, which is also another important aspect of this cultural shift that we're making into creating more psychological safety in our environment, right? 

So the environment there was it was a wonderful place. They did excellent work, good quality work, but demonstrated such a lack of willingness to move beyond just continuing to do what they already did well. And I realized that for me those values were very important to me, having that ability and that would mean that I would need to actually make a change.

And after having spent by that time a couple of decades in organizational environments, I realized that I wanted to be in charge of what my mission was, of what I wanted to accomplish, what my goals needed to be, and the values I wanted to actually operate under. And that actually allowed me to have the courage to launch my own business and to launch a business that was values-based that was mine and mission-focused. 

And I have never looked back on that based upon the opportunities that it gave. And I think some of the things that we talked about today though, as leaders develop them, it really gives them the strength to do just that, to lead, to move themselves as well as others from where they are now to actually where they want to be. That's what organizations need you to be able to do.

Beth Almes:

I love that, that sense of being able to break out from beyond what you're currently doing or what you're thinking. And that's what the psychological safety is all about, to think beyond just what's expected of us to bring forth that innovation, those different ideas, that expansion of what we can do and how we can better solve problems. 

So I love that story and how it related to all of the wonderful tips and ideas you've shared with us today. So thank you so much, Jen, for being here with us on the Leadership 480 Podcast.

Jennifer Davis-Allison:

Oh, it was a pleasure. Pleasure spending time with you, and definitely a pleasure having the leaders that share and listen in on this podcast sharing time with them.

Beth Almes:

Thank you so much, Jen. And to our leaders, thank you for taking time out of your 480 minutes today to be with us, and remember to make every moment of leadership count.