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How psychological safety drives high-performance teams
How psychological safety drives high-performance teams

As a healthcare leader in today's world, it feels like you’re under more pressure, more stress and in more demand than ever. Within these challenging circumstances, the role of psychological safety in fostering high-performance teams is critically important. 

But what exactly is psychological safety, and why is it so crucial to fostering strong teams and strong cultures in our post-pandemic world?

Understanding Psychological Safety: The Brain and Fear

To understand the importance of psychological safety, it's essential to first understand our brain's response to fear.  The amygdalae, two almond-shaped brain structures that are part of the limbic system, continuously scan our environment for threats. When a threat is detected, our sympathetic nervous system prepares us for fight, flight, or freeze. While this biological response was initially intended to help us combat physical threats, our subconscious mind is so powerful that our threat response also operates at a psychological level. When we feel criticized, disregarded, or disrespected, our amygdalae react the same way they would to a physical threat, triggering fear and ultimately, stress.

The biological fear and stress response to psychological threats has profound implications in the workplace. If we or our team members experience fear-based responses regularly this creates a state of chronic stress and our ability to react positively and effectively to situations diminishes. After the 'fight or flight' reaction has receded, our bodies instinctively want to transition into an exhaustion or shut-down mode so that we have a chance to recover. When we go through this regularly, without the chance to recover,  we experience a depletion that hinders our capacity to act and react optimally, affecting our efficiency and efficacy at work.

This is exactly why psychological safety plays a crucial role in the workplace. Without psychological safety, our ability and our team'steams capacity to function at their best is compromised. However, by fostering a climate of psychological safety, we can alleviate some of the chronic stress and fear that hampers performance, thereby enabling us and our teams to operate at a higher level. 

Psychological Safety vs. Comfort: Recognizing the Difference

The interesting thing about psychological safety is that high performance often demands pushing ourselves into areas of discomfort, which sounds exactly like the kind of situation that would trigger a psychological stress response. Paradoxically, psychological safety isn't about comfort or avoiding scary situations at all but rather about generating conditions where you and your team feel secure expressing, engaging, fostering understanding and cooperating with one another, regardless of the circumstances around you.

This delicate balance is more easily maintained when your team is tightly aligned around a common goal. A shared purpose, in fact, forms the cornerstone of psychological safety, as it helps to create an aligned context within which your team members can feel safe pushing beyond their comfort zones.

However, there are going to be times when, in the pursuit of psychological safety, you might mistake comfort for safety. Warning signs of this mistake can include: continually surveying your team to find out what they need to feel safe, trying too hard to satisfy a consistently unhappy few, or feeling that your efforts to create a positive team environment only lead to more complaints.

Although you’re trying your best to create psychological safety, these comfort-oriented behaviours often point to a team that has lost its direction because it has drifted away from its alignment to a common goal. This is a crucial distinction, because when the focus shifts towards individual interests for comfort, it can indicate a shift away from the pursuit of a shared purpose.

When your team isn’t united by a common goal, it's your job as a leader to get them back on track by orienting them to the purpose of their work, and in doing so, foster psychological safety rather than comfort. Psychological safety pushes us towards achievement, whereas comfort causes us to reduce our effort towards a common goal and instead focus on self interest. This is particularly prevalent during times of moral distress when we feel overworked. In these moments it’s important for leaders to recognize and empathize with these feelings of distress, but also to recognize that this distress often comes from feeling disconnected from your purpose. 

To reconnect your team with the shared purpose, start by reminding everyone of your 'why': why you're all here and what you're here to achieve together. Remember, focusing on psychological safety without first establishing a clear, shared goal might sidetrack your team towards comfort and lead them to lower performance. Keep your team focused on shared goals, not individual complaints, and you’ll be setting the stage for psychological safety and high performance.

Embracing Psychological Safety for High Performance

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence for the importance of psychological safety in teams comes from Google's research initiative, Project Aristotle. In this extensive study, Google set out to understand why some teams outperformed others, analyzing hundreds of variables from team composition to leadership styles. The key finding? Psychological safety was the most predictive factor of a team's high performance.

This research underscores the need for leaders to create an environment where team members feel secure enough to take risks, voice their opinions, and express their ideas without fear of criticism or punishment. Importantly, this confidence to contribute does not exist in isolation; it is intrinsically linked to the team's alignment towards a common goal.

When your team's shared objective is clear, it provides a basis for trust and mutual respect, allowing collaboration to flourish and innovative ideas to thrive. A common goal serves not only as a light guiding the team's efforts but also as a pillar supporting the psychological safety necessary for high performance.

As a healthcare leader, you can significantly enhance your team's performance by embracing the principles of psychological safety. However, it's not just about fostering an environment where your team members feel secure taking interpersonal risks. It's also about ensuring that these risks are directed towards a shared objective, thus creating an environment where open communication, constructive feedback, and collaborative problem-solving come naturally.

To echo the findings of Project Aristotle, achieving high performance isn't merely about assembling a team of top performers. It involves creating an environment where everyone feels safe to contribute their ideas and skills, and where everyone is united by a common goal. 

In the demanding landscape of today’s healthcare sector, fostering psychological safety is an incredibly important tool in creating strong teams and strong cultures.

When you and your team are stretched to the limit on a daily basis, it is crucial that you create psychological safety, first by understanding the brain's response to fear and second by separating comfort and safety and redirecting your team back to a shared purpose. 


As a leader, you have a significant influence on your team and culture. Ensuring that you’re fulfilling your role as a strong and effective leader has never been more crucial than it is now.

This is why Instincts at Work has teamed up with Med-IP and Dr. Ted James, MD, MHCM, FACS to bring you Strong Teams, Strong Culture, an interactive workshop to give healthcare leaders the critical skills they need to transform their team culture.

With a shared commitment to revolutionizing healthcare through effective leadership, we’ve designed this collaborative program to empower healthcare leaders, like you, through evidence-based methods, practical tools and strategies that are proven effective.

Strong Teams, Strong Culture is a highly interactive and transformative workshop designed to give you the skills to:

> Revitalize your team 

> Foster psychological safety 

> Develop key habits for a thriving team culture

Click here to learn more about Strong Teams, Strong Culture, or send us an email.


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