How Leaders Can Create Fearless Teams

Thanks to the illuminating work of psychologists such as William Kahn and Amy Edmondson, as well as researchers within Google, many of us are now aware that the highest performing teams often have one thing in common: psychological safety.

Psychological safety is a shared belief that the workplace is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. In psychologically safe teams, members can bring their full selves to work because they are encouraged to speak up with any concerns, questions, ideas and mistakes. And when they do this, they are given the benefit of the doubt, which leaves them feeling accepted and respected.

Edmondson contends that speaking up matters because every time an employee withholds a challenge, question, idea or admission, they rob themselves and those around them of the opportunity to learn and innovate. When employees fear they will be negatively judged — or worse, punished for taking a risk — they don’t create better solutions, adaptive organizations or more fulfilling work for themselves.

Research has also found that teams with psychological safety learn faster and perform better, as well as experience lower turnover rates and higher productivity rates. In psychologically safe teams, interpersonal fear is minimized so that team and organizational performance can be maximized. Leaders of these teams create conditions for employees to focus on achieving shared goals, rather than on self-protection. When psychological safety is lacking, I believe we risk organizational disasters, such as those at Volkswagen and Wells Fargo.

So now that we know better, how do we do better? How can leaders activate psychological safety? In my experience as a leadership coach, I’ve seen three leadership mindsets help pave the way for valuing ideas, inviting questions and honoring vulnerability at work: openness, curiosity and courage.

• Openness means you bring an open mind and desire to learn to the workplace.

• Curiosity means you are willing to ask about things you don’t know or fully understand; you show an interest in others’ points of view, experiences and feelings.

• Courage means you move toward things you’d rather avoid; you confront unconscious patterns, difficult conversations and the status quo, and you engage with the people and topics that make you feel vulnerable.

So how can you really show these mindsets? Here are a few of my top tips on how to do so:


To become more open with your colleagues and employees, consciously assume good intentions of the person with whom you’re interacting. This might mean thinking to yourself: “Deep down, this person is just like me. They have needs, perspectives and hopes — just like me.” When you’re not judging, you can truly listen and learn.

I’ve found it’s also helpful to:

• Discuss the risks and complexities of any projects you might be working on. This invites others to speak up. You could say, “This project is complex, and I want to hear your thoughts so we can take intelligent risks.”

• Before you chime into a team conversation, ask yourself, “Is what I’m about to say true or necessary?”

• Try to see the world as others see it. For example, you can start with something simple, such as, “Help me understand,” “What’s your point of view on this?” or, “What am I not seeing?”


There are a variety of ways you can start showing your curiosity as a leader:

• Solicit input from those who are quiet in meetings. Hearing from more people surfaces further potential consequences and viable solutions.

• Frame challenges and missteps as learning opportunities. For example, you might start by saying, “We didn’t achieve our goal, but what did we learn?” or, “I know we’re under pressure, so what’s becoming clearer to us?”

• Ask open-ended questions, such as “What’s working for you now?” and “What problem are you trying to solve?”

• Express genuine curiosity, and encourage team members to tell you about their work. Helpful conversation starters include statements such as, “Tell me more about…” or, “I’m curious about…”


With this mindset, it’s important to admit what you don’t know. This creates space for others to step up and offer their expertise. To develop a more courageous mindset, try the following:

• Own your mistakes, and offer lessons learned.

• When members of your team are sharing how they feel, accept their emotions as natural and neutral, not weak or wrong. Emotions should be allowed, but do remember that certain behaviors (i.e., insults, violence or tantrums) are not.

• Express to your team how you’re feeling as well. Let them know when you’re frustrated, inspired or anxious. This helps to give them the context to best help you.

• Clarify your values, and deliberately live them. Knowing what you stand for helps everyone know what to fight for.

• Get explicit. In my experience, being clear is kind and efficient. You could say statements like, “I’m working from these assumptions — what about you?” or “What would help me most is…”

Psychological safety inherently forces leaders to confront fears, perceptions of scarcity and patterns of self-protection. To overcome these, openness, curiosity and courage are critical. I believe the payoff is worth it because no one gains from silence. I’ve observed that those who fail to speak up often report regret or pain, and teams miss out on insights and forgo chances to innovate. As a result, organizations might make miscalculations that have the potential to hurt people or the planet.

As researcher Brené Brown said, “Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.” From my perspective, this means courageous and empathetic leaders create psychological safety by having the willingness and skills to value ideas, invite questions and honor vulnerability. Be this kind of leader.

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