Creating a Psychologically Safe Space for Better Collaboration

GroupMap - Creating a psychologically safe space for better collaboration.

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is a term coined by Professor Amy C Edmondson of Harvard University. It describes a workplace environment free from interpersonal fear. It is an unspoken belief shared by the members of a group that theirs is a safe space in which they can take interpersonal risks.

As humans, we remain hard-wired with a fight or flight response. We assess every environment we encounter for risk. We pick up on even the smallest of cues, process them and decide if we’re in a safe place or we’re not. If we register we’re not safe, one of our two, pre-programmed reactions kick in. We find ourselves feeling we want to fight or flee.

We never stop assessing our environment. Even when we’re at work, we have our feelers out.

In a world of ergonomic furniture, fire drills and hand sanitizing stations, it’s easy to assume workplaces would be at the top of the safety list.  But our assessment goes beyond the physical. We gently register smiles, nods and responses. We pick up on eye rolls, sighs and silences. We tune into how our manager and colleagues interact. All to inform the level of risk we perceive to be aligned to our livelihood.

This process is because of our programming. It interprets ‘my job is safe’ as ‘I am safe’.  This is the feeling that’s at the core of psychological safety.

When you are working in a psychologically safe space, your feelers don’t register risk. This means your job receives your full focus. Not only that, the absence of fear means you experience a sense of confidence and trust. You feel you have permission to be both honest and candid. You sense that you can speak up and your voice is valued. This means you feel very comfortable sharing ideas, asking questions and offering comments. It is also a space in which you feel it’s ok to make mistakes.

What Isn’t Psychological Safety?

Edmondson makes it clear that psychological safety isn’t a workplace goal. Rather, it is a means of reaching a goal.

A psychologically safe space isn’t –

  • one that lacks conflict. In fact, conversations in safe spaces can be quite direct, and very candid.
  • one where there’s blind celebration of all ideas. Instead, ideas in safe spaces are still explored and assessed.
  • one that lacks errors or failure. It’s a space in which people feel safe to take risks and experiment with different solutions.

Most importantly, psychological safety isn’t an excuse to slack off or say whatever you like. There is still an expectation people will act appropriately within the workplace. They will be thoughtful and considerate. They will be productive and professional.

Why is Psychological Safety Important?

Author Anthony Hood gives two reasons why psychological safety is important –

  1. Without psychological safety, people are afraid to speak up. When people are afraid to speak up, bad things happen.
  2. A psychologically safe space supports the bottom line.

A lack of psychological safety means fear is present. Fear impacts thinking and decision making. With fear driving our behavior, self preservation is our priority. This means, in a fearful moment, we overlook the bigger picture to protect ourselves. As a result, bad things happen. Those bad things can include planes flying into mountains or patients receiving the wrong treatment.

Psychological safety also supports the bottom line. As work becomes more complex with less resources, team success requires team members to step up. In doing so they are taking an interpersonal risk. When they suggest a better way forward, it will need to be defended when scrutinized. They are presenting themselves as having expertise, possibly greater than that of their peers and manager. They are not ‘going with the flow’. They are ‘rocking the boat’ for the sake of the team delivering value.

High-performing teams typically feel safe enough to take risks. They also care enough to do so.   Edmonson’s work reflected this when she examined the relationship between two dimensions –  psychological safety, and motivation and accountability

GroupMap_Edmondson’s psychological safety and motivation and accountability

Four zones were identified –

  • Learning and high-performing zone.
    An environment of high psychological safety and high motivation is called the learning and high-performance zone. This is the ideal space for a workplace team. They are motivated to take risks and are therefore more likely to experience success.
  • Comfort zone.
    An environment of high psychological safety and low motivation is called the comfort zone. This could be an environment in which there is no fear, but also no sense of buy-in from the team.
  • Interpersonal anxiety zone.
    An environment of low psychological safety and high motivation is called the interpersonal anxiety zone. This is a space in which there is a great deal of fear and people are disempowered.
  • Apathy zone.
    An environment of low psychological safety and low motivation is called the apathy zone. It’s a space in which there’s low performance and very little else.

    The interpersonal anxiety zone should be of particular concern. This is the zone that can be very impactful on an individual’s mental health and therefore wellbeing.

How Does Psychological Safety Improve Collaboration?

Psychological safety improves collaboration in three important ways.

Firstly, psychological safety addresses groupthink. Groupthink is when our desire for cohesion influences group decision-making. We don’t want to appear different from the group, so we favor ideas that will help avoid conflict so consensus can be quickly reached. It occurs when we are feeling unsafe.

Secondly, it also addresses hesitancy. When we’re unsure we will hesitate before sharing suggestions and ideas. In that moment of hesitation we may self-edit or self-censor. When we find ourselves in a psychologically safe space we readily offer our ideas and feedback. This also means more ideas are shared.

Finally, psychological safety supports the evolution of ideas. Without the fear of things such as a judgment or adverse action we freely offer and embrace feedback. We are actively curious and open to possibilities. We will explore the potential of suggestions. This drives creativity and innovation.

In short, psychological safety supports collaboration because we’re not held back by fear. We’re not weighed down by excessive worries about others’ opinions regarding our actions. Our energy isn’t directed to thinking of ways to avoid the potential for embarrassment and other threats. Psychological safety gives us the freedom to engage, explore and create.

What Does a Psychologically Safe Meeting Space Look Like?

Meetings offer a window into the level of psychological safety of a team or group. If the group feels safe, the following four key signs will be observed.

  • Participation is high. When meeting attendees feel safe, they happily engage in the meeting. They will offer ideas and suggestions. They will be curious about the topics being discussed. They will ask questions to clarify and confirm their understanding.

  • Mistakes will be mentioned. When meeting attendees feel safe they will acknowledge and own their mistakes. Their errors will be used as a learning opportunity because psychologically safe spaces are the ones in which learning takes place.

  • Feedback is requested. When meeting attendees feel safe they will actively request and offer feedback. Feedback is seen as constructive. It is understood it is a reflection of the idea and not the person suggesting it.

  • There will be conflict. When meeting attendees feel safe they will disagree. It is understood that healthy dissent can stimulate neural pathways and spark creativity. Attendees will share their concerns regarding an idea. They will offer alternative ideas. They will explore the merits of all suggestions and reach a consensus.

How Do I Know if My Team Feels Safe?

The best way to find out if your team feels psychologically safe is to ask them. Of course, that’s easier said than done. This is because the way someone is asked about psychological safety can, in fact, affect that sense of safety.

For example, if a manager asks a team member if they feel safe, they are highly likely to say that they do. That’s not because they do really feel that way, but rather because they simply want to shut down a potentially uncomfortable conversation. Claiming they feel safe is the easiest way to do this.

Edmondson shaped seven key questions to help assess the level of psychological safety felt by a group. 

  1. If you make a mistake on your team, is it held against you?
  2. Are you able to bring up problems and tough issues?
  3. Do people on the team sometimes reject others for being different?
  4. Is it safe to take a risk?
  5. Is it difficult to ask other team members for help?
  6. Do people on the team deliberately act to undermine your efforts?
  7. Are your unique skills and talents valued and utilized?

The questions help to assess the level of group-based fear. The more fear that’s apparent, the less safe the group feels.

As with our earlier example, asking these questions directly to a group member will distort their response. The best way of capturing feedback to these questions is to allow people to respond anonymously. If time allows, it’s also valuable to allow for asynchronous responses. This means people don’t feel rushed or pressured in any way.

As time passes and team members come and go, it’s important to revisit these questions. The shared experience of existing team members can be daunting for new people. Not only that, what makes people feel safe will change over time.

What Can I Do to Build a Psychologically Safe Space?

GroupMap - How psychological safety supports collaboration2

While it’s everyone’s responsibility to foster an environment of psychological safety, it is tethered to the top of an organization. Leaders and managers need to model behavior that others will follow.

  • Acknowledge mistakes. Keep the saying “to err is human” front of mind. Show that everyone makes mistakes and that the important thing is to learn from them and grow. It’s also valuable to acknowledge those that helped to identify and fix the error. This reinforces the importance of the team.
  • Be available to the team. Listen to their feedback, concerns, and questions. Listen to their suggestions. Be curious and ask questions that give your team a platform to speak.

  • Respond mindfully. Owning up to mistakes isn’t easy and it should be supported rather than punished. Responding with annoyance, anger or frustration will only diminish psychological safety. It may even teach people to hide their mistakes or blame others.

  • Ask for help and offer it. It’s important that asking for help isn’t seen as a sign of incompetence. Instead, it’s an indication of being self-aware. If someone has a particular experience, make the most of them by asking them to assist. If an important deadline is looming, ask others to contribute to lower stress levels. If someone is struggling, offer to help out. Help is a symptom of good teamwork and collaboration.

  • Facilitate guidelines. They could range from meeting ground rules to a team agreement. Allow the people working together with the opportunity to set the parameters in which they will operate. This will give people the chance to define the behavior that helps them feel safe.

  • Nominate a devil’s advocate. Appoint someone to be critical of ideas rather than supportive. This distances an individual from any criticism they may issue as well as helps to ensure all ideas have rigor.

Everyone can contribute to psychological safety by  –

  • Saying what you would want to hear in the workplace. If you were new, had made a mistake or done a great job, what would you want to hear from your colleagues? Well, say it. Connecting with empathy and demonstrations of support will foster a sense of trust and safety.

  • Keeping things in context. You could be a part of a project group, a workplace team, or a committee member. You are a member of a group that has a purpose so don’t make it personal.

  • Expressing gratitude. The positive effects of gratitude range from better sleep to an increase in life satisfaction. Expressing gratitude is a way of acknowledging the help that was received. As we’ve said before, help is a sign of collaboration and good teamwork.

Make your Meetings Safer with GroupMap

Supporting psychological safety does take some effort but it’s well worth the effort – and GroupMap can make it easy.

Groupmap supports the effective delivery of workshops, meetings, teaching, and training. It boasts features specifically designed to overcome barriers to collaboration, foster a safe environment and increase meeting participation.

You can start straight away with any one of the 80+ templates.

Use GroupMap to run your next online session today.

Have more questions or would like a demo?

5 Reasons Why your Team should Start Virtual Brainstorming


Still thinking about reasons why your team should start virtual brainstorming?

We have access to an incredible array of technological developments that can change the way we work; from online collaborative tools and virtual workspaces, through to web-based mechanisms for team decision making.

With so many tools at our fingertips, it’s becoming easier to embrace an online workflow that fosters collaboration and enhances productivity.

Group brainstorming is no exception. In fact, in this Harvard Business Review article and meta-analysis, creative performance of virtual versus in person brainstorming sessions showed a different of almost 50% of a standard deviation and that “70% of participants can be expected to perform worse in traditional than virtual brainstorming sessions.”

Leading companies, agile teams, and workshop facilitators often use group brainstorming to create –

  • Solutions to challenges,
  • Answers for questions, and
  • An inspiration that sparks new products and ventures.

While group brainstorming can be an incredibly valuable mechanism, traditional brainstorming isn’t always effective. Indeed, traditional (face to face) brainstorming comes with inherent challenges such as –

  • A clash of egos
  • Groupthink and production blocking
  • Not all voices heard

All of which may negatively impact the quality of the decision the brainstorm was to inform. The great news is, there are effective online brainstorming tools that can help overcome these challenges. So if you’re wondering if your team should start virtual brainstorming, the answer is a very loud yes!

Here are five reasons why!

Why Should My Team Start Virtual Brainstorming?

Reason 1 – It creates a level playing field

Production blocking describes a context that happens when not all participants have the opportunity to speak up or contribute during traditional brainstorming.

There can be many reasons for this. There may be someone with a particularly dominant personality in the group who enjoys the spotlight. Several people may try to speak at once. An idea may be challenged before it is recorded. The group may become involved in a conversation and the idea forgotten before it is recorded.

Additionally, the ideas themselves may influence the information that is shared. Participants may anchor onto the first few ideas and start to converge onto a few thoughts rather than being able to share different perspectives.

Instances such as these limit idea generation.

With virtual brainstorming, each person in the group can share their ideas in real time, free from distraction and bias.

GroupMap, for example, allows people to brainstorm in real time individually, with ideas then being combined on the same brainstorming template. Similar ideas can be seen and grouped. 

The chance to brainstorm individually has allowed everyone to put their ideas forward and share those ideas then quickly inspire new ones.

Reason 2 – It supports a psychologically safe space

When people are apprehensive about a task, they are less likely to contribute effectively to that task.

In the case of traditional brainstorming, people may feel apprehensive because  –

  1. They may be uncomfortable speaking up in a group.
  2. They may be unsure of the subject or lack confidence in the validity of ideas.

To put it simply – they don’t feel safe.

With such apprehension present, the effectiveness of the brainstorming session could be impacted –

  1. Participants may limit their contributions to the brainstorming.
  2. Participants may self-edit ideas.

These behaviors aren’t deliberate, they are defense mechanisms people unconsciously activate when they encounter a situation in which they feel uncomfortable. They may limit or edit their ideas to lessen the likelihood of being called upon to explain what they meant or reduce the chance of their idea being challenged.

Virtual brainstorming tools often include simple features to hinder the activation of that personal defense mechanism.

Online brainstorming tools allow participants to contribute with full or partial anonymity. In doing so they are more likely to feel more confident about sharing their thoughts and suggestions with the group without feeling judged.

Allowing participants to contribute anonymously often increases  –

  • Participation and engagement rates.
  • The number of ideas generated.

That’s right when brainstorming anonymously, people feel safer, and therefore contribute more!

Reason 3 – Encourages a greater range of ideas

When you’re amongst a group of friends do you ever find yourself agreeing to something that you don’t really want to do? Perhaps heading to a restaurant you don’t particularly like or sitting through a movie you never wanted to see?


It’s most likely you find yourself in those situations because you want to keep the peace; those decisions aren’t a big deal so you just go with the flow and agree with the group.

You’ve just experienced groupthink – a phenomenon that sees a desire for harmony within a group of people strongly influencing the decisions of that group.

The same thing can happen when brainstorming with a group of people. Once one person sees an idea, they are less likely to share an opposing view. In fact, that idea may influence them to the extent that they suggest similar ideas.

Virtual brainstorming makes counteracting groupthink incredibly easy. It’s possible to manage the process of the brainstorm so that participants brainstorm separately before all ideas are shared (at the same time).

In addition to managing the process, virtual brainstorming tools offer a large variety of creative templates to spark thoughts, so participants aren’t just staring at a blank page. Changing up the templates is a great way to prompt participants and help them to consider different contexts. It’s also possible to adapt those templates (even mid-brainstorm!)

By compensating for groupthink and building a context to spark creativity, virtual brainstorming tends to encourage a far broader range of ideas than a traditional approach.

Reason 4 – Transparent decision making

When it comes to decision-making, transparency ensures those decisions are informed and equitable.

Transparency reduces opportunities for undue influence and bias; so decisions made via a transparent process are less likely to be challenged, and more likely to be accepted and trusted.

Unlike those reached via general discussion, decisions made using an appropriate virtual tool are more likely to be transparent simply because every step of the decision-making process can be captured, reviewed, and quantified.

An online brainstorming tool could allow all participants to prioritize ideas (color coding, positioning on a radar, ratings, rankings, etc) in order to surface those they perceive to be most important. Facilitators can then easily see if participants’ thoughts are aligned, or if different perspectives require exploration.

Features such as anonymous voting allow all participants the opportunity to opt for the ideas they wish, without others knowing how they voted. Again removing the likelihood of influence.

With all data captured, the passage of time (with our propensity for forgetfulness) doesn’t erode the legitimacy of the decision.

Reason 5 –  Faster, unbiased reporting

Virtual brainstorming side-steps the need to double handle information.

Unlike traditional brainstorming, there’s no need to copy ideas from sticky notes, flip charts, and whiteboards. WIth participants directly entering their ideas into the tool, there’s simply no need to retype them.

Because it’s digital, ideas don’t have to be limited to the few words that can be recorded on a post-it. Participants can comment on each other’s ideas, they can even add emojis and GIFs! Any grouping or voting on ideas is also instantly recorded, and there’s no risk of a miscount!

That direct entry of ideas also ensures that the participant’s idea or comment is represented as they intended, and not misrecorded or interpreted by someone jotting down the idea on their behalf.

Not only can inputs from a virtual brainstorming session be captured quickly and accurately, but the reports can also be used to assess the elements of the brainstorm.

GroupMap supports reports that can be generated based on a myriad of criteria (the process, the participants, the ideas, comments, and more).

Virtual brainstorming means there’s no need for a ‘scribe’ to capture ideas generated by the brainstorming process. It also means that the facilitator doesn’t need to spend hours compiling information post brainstorm.

The Bottom Line: Take Your Brainstorming Sessions to Another Level with Virtual Brainstorming

Shifting from traditional brainstorming to a virtual space allows team members to feel comfortable in creating more, broad-ranging ideas, that are quickly and objectively captured.

If you haven’t guessed it already and you’re keen to use effective brainstorming tools and techniques to take your team’s brainstorming sessions to another level, you’ve come to the right place.

GroupMap is an online brainstorming and group decision-making tool that helps improve the output and productivity of teams during brainstorming activities.

Have more questions or would like a demo?