Improve team performance? Ensure psychological safety!

A group of people together is not a team. This is what you need to make it one!


Marty de Jonge

3 years ago | 5 min read

Road to Professional Leadership

In my daily work, I’m always in an environment where people work in a so-called ‘team’. That’s probably why I’m often asked to serve as a ‘Team Coach’. And if you take a look at the Scrum guide, you’ll see the term is used no less than 155 times.

Just to put things into perspective. Without the title page, the table of contents and the acknowledgements, the Scrum Guide covers 16 pages. That means on average almost 10 times the word ‘team’ per page.

It’s like you’re always in a team these days. Even if you’re a freelancer with a very specific specialization, you still are a part of a “team”. At least, that’s what it’s called. But it’s not that simple.

A group of people together is not a team.

A group of people together is not a team

The fundamental units in a learning organization are working groups or teams. Teams as owners of problems, as carriers of ambition, people who need each other to achieve a result. Teams usually are highly interdependent. They plan work, solve problems, make decisions and assess progress in the service of a specific project. Team members need each other to get the work done. On top of that, a team is bigger than the sum of its individuals.

It is often said that a group of individuals is a team. A team, however, is different than a group with a leader. A team holds each other responsible for achieving its goals and performance. In a group, the leader takes this responsibility. A team is seen as a psychological group whose members share a common goal and pursue this goal together. Teamwork, thus, requires a common language, a way of thinking and talking about problems.

The difference between a group of people and a team is psychological safety.

What psychological safety has to do with this? Let’s take a look at the effect of psychological safety, and what it does to people.

Psychological (un)safety

Harvard behavioural scientist Amy Edmondson first introduced the construction of “team psychological safety” and defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

Psychological safety sounds simple, but if, as a team member, you would ask a simple question like “what is the purpose of this Psychological safety project?”. It sounds as if you don’t understand it. Then it is easier not to ask for clarification, to avoid coming across as ignorant. Nobody wants to come across as ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative.

That is why we have developed a defence mechanism to deal with this. We do not ask questions. We don’t admit mistakes. We do not come up with ideas. And we do not question the situation. Whereas all this is necessary to perform. To improve or innovate, to work safely. To become a team!

Picture by the author
Picture by the author

We want team members to have a safe environment. To have the confidence that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake. That asking a question or coming up with a new idea is encouraged. In a psychologically safe environment, everyone knows that there are no negative consequences for this.

Of the five key dynamics of effective teams identified by the researchers, psychological safety was by far the most important. This one is supported by 4 others.

Dynamics of effective teams

Google researchers discovered that it mattered less who was on the team and more about how the team worked together. In order of importance:

1. Psychological safety: Team members feel safe to take risks and dare to be vulnerable to each other.

2. Dependability: Team members take responsibility to get the work done on time and with high quality.

3. Structure and clarity: Team members know what is expected of them because they have clear roles, plans and goals.

4. Meaning: The sense of meaning in both the work itself and the result is important for the effectiveness of the team.

5. Impact: The results of your work, the subjective judgment that your work makes a difference, is important for the team.

Something similar Rudy Gort describes in his books on Lean. Intensive collaboration helps employees deal with shared insecurity. Teamwork gives meaning. People have the feeling that they are part of something bigger than themselves. The feeling that they are connected and co-create something. So, make sure that there are no isolated islands, otherwise, the total effort will not be seen. Because when an employee is on his or her own, there is no teamwork! The trick is to promote behaviour that supports teamwork. And there is quite a lot of overlap with the lean-approach.

Promote desired behaviour

Here are some tips for managers and leaders to support the behaviours the researchers found important for effective teams. These are based on external research and experiences from Google. Rudy combined this with what is happening within Lean.

Psychological safety:

  • Ask input and opinions from the group. That’s why we work a lot with post-its, so everyone can share their opinions. Equivalence is the starting point of Lean.
  • For this, you will have to be vulnerable (also see the TED Talk by Brené Brown). That’s why Toyota is so attached to self-reflection (or better: hansei).
  • Approach a challenge as a learning problem, not an implementation problem. The continuous improvement engine is not based on the PDCA cycle for anything.


  • Clarify the roles and responsibilities of team members. The Daily Scrum confirms each time who takes which responsibility.
  • Develop concrete project plans to provide transparency in the work of each individual. Pull planning, and working with KANBAN boards, provides transparency.

Structure and clarity:

  • Communicate team goals regularly and make sure team members understand the plan to achieve these goals. Hence the Obeya principle, which addresses this every time.
  • Make sure your team meetings have a clear agenda and a designated leader. Daily Scrums & Sprint Reviews work with a clear structure and direction.


  • Give team members positive feedback on something they are doing well and offer to help them with something they are struggling with. The short-cycle feedback loops approach provides immediate feedback. Also, it supports the speed of requests for help to come up faster, as well as the team spirit to support each other.
  • Express your gratitude publicly for someone who has helped you.


  • Co-create a clear vision that reinforces how the work of each team member contributes directly to the goals of the team and the organization. That’s why purpose is at the heart of the house of LEAN.
  • Think about the work you do and how it affects users or customers and the organization. This is interwoven in the value thinking and associated customer focus.

Watch the videos of Amy Edmondson about psychological safety here:

Acknowledgements to Rudy Gort


Created by

Marty de Jonge

As an agnostic change agent, I am constantly amazed at what happens in organizations and learn every day. Enthusiastic writer and always open for discussion.







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