Imagine you’re in a project kickoff meeting, sharing ideas about an upcoming marketing campaign for your newest client.
Creativity is flowing. One of the ideas on the board is gaining momentum among the group. Then Julie, a new engineer who’s been quiet for the last 30 minutes, speaks up.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea. Why should our client’s audience care about this story? How does it even relate to our client’s brand?”
Suddenly, all that creative momentum screeches to a halt. A couple people look around uneasily. Others sit in silence.
Julie is new to the group. She’s a singular voice of dissent. And it would be easy to dismiss her opinion altogether. If she had criticized your idea, her comment might upset you. What does she know, anyway? What’s she trying to prove?
Now Jeff, your project lead, chimes in.
“That’s a great point, Julie. We shouldn’t scrap this idea altogether, but we can make it even more impactful. How can we strengthen the storyline so it resonates with our client’s audience?”
Jeff, as the leader of this team, quickly identified a crucial turning point in the meeting.
He didn’t react to how Julie presented her idea. Instead, he respectfully welcomed her insight to the group’s discussion and provided clear guidance for how the team could move forward.
Micro-interactions like these can have a significant impact on our team's success. Jeff may have helped Julie feel like a valued member of the team in this situation, but the scales could have easily tipped the other way.
Jeff could have ignored Julie’s comment, shut her down, or said nothing at all. But doing so would essentially dismiss her idea as unimportant. Julie would probably walk away from the meeting feeling ostracized from her teammates and disrespected by her manager. From that point on, she might not speak up in meetings, lest she feels ridiculed or humiliated again.
Psychological safety at work
You may already know about psychological safety — the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.
Psychological safety in the workplace hinges on feelings of respect and trust among team members; ensuring that every individual feels comfortable acting authentically and communicating openly.
Beyond these broad definitions, we can identify four traits of successful teams that foster a psychologically safe work environment:
- Clearly defined goals and expectations. Without clear expectations, people are left guessing what kinds of behaviors are acceptable. And when left unchecked, this general uncertainty can lead to performance-crippling anxiety. Successful teams understand their goals, the individual roles and responsibilities within the team, and what behavioral boundaries they have to work within.
- Mutual respect and trust. To gain respect, you have to show respect for your teammates and their work. On successful teams, each person knows that their expertise is valued, and their individual efforts contribute to the team’s overall success.
- Permission to challenge each other. Some individuals may be more introverted than others, but you can’t let your quieter voices get drowned out by others. Everyone on a successful team has permission to speak up with ideas and respectfully challenge each other.
- Vulnerability and bravery. No one wants to pretend to be someone else when they get to the office. They want to feel just as comfortable at work as they do at home. On successful teams, people can share scary, stressful, anxiety-inducing emotions about work without fear of being punished or humiliated.
How managers can lead the way
When leaders like Jeff mismanage pivotal micro-interactions, trust and respect erode among team members, resentment builds, and performance suffers. No one ends up happy, yet the damage is done. It’s difficult to rebuild that trust once it’s broken.
To mitigate these problematic feelings, think of yourself as less of a manager, and more as a trusted advisor.
Being a trusted advisor means being direct and clear in your guidance, so everyone on your team fully understands the intentions behind your feedback. Stay empathetic to their unique personalities, recognize their strengths, and demonstrate through your behaviors and actions that you care deeply about their individual successes.
When everyone on your team feels both challenged and supported by their teammates and managers, your entire team will work together more effectively to reach its goals.