One Phrase To Support Psychological Safety in Your Team

Why it’s difficult to create a psychologically safe environment and one thing you can do to build safety

Wang Yip
3 min readApr 18, 2023
Photo by sol on Unsplash

As a manager and leader, I know first-hand how hard it is to build psychological safety within your teams. But rather than speak from my experience as a manager, I want to share, from my experience as an individual contributor, several factors that may explain why psychological safety is hard to build:

  • When you join a team, any team, you put your guard up. It’s a natural reaction — you don’t know who to trust (who will support you? Who will stab you in the back if they have a chance?) and even if you do know who to trust, you don’t know how much to trust them (can I share rumours and gossip? If I share my career goals and aspirations will they be used against me? If I share my opinions, will it be used to block my career growth?)
  • Psychological safety is not built up through one or two experiences. Like trust, it’s a slow process that is built over multiple interactions and like Jenga blocks, it can all fall if even one brick (interaction) is out of place.
  • Psychological safety isn’t built up through words or conversations (though it is part of it). It’s built up through actions. After I have a conversation with you, what do you do with the information? Are you sharing information with me? Do you have my interests in mind? Does your attitude or interaction with me change after I share it with you?

While there are many ways to build psychological safety — I recently learned one phrase, or rather, a word, that helps to build psychological safety. The word? How.

For example, one of the most important parts of psychological safety is feedback and getting people’s honest feelings. We all want feedback, but when a superior asks it from us, we tend to frame it positively without sharing anything real.

The word ‘How’ tries to dig deeper.

  • After getting feedback, instead of asking “Why do you think that?”, ask “How is that true?”
  • If someone gives you a ridiculous suggestion, such as spending a million dollars on one campaign (when you very well know that multiple campaigns are the way to go), instead of saying “That’s crazy” or asking “Why would you do that?”, ask “How would that work?”

Using ‘how’ opens up the conversation. There’s no judgment or critique. In fact, saying “How is that true?” almost presumes that whatever was said was true. What it gets at though is in what situations the feedback is true, which then opens up the dialogue — rather than a back and forth on whether something is true in certain situations or not, it’s a conversation about what happened, how the feedback is true, and what to do about it in the future.

Try incorporating ‘how’ the next time you are looking to open up the conversation with people on your team.

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Wang Yip

Author of Essential Habits. I write about personal development, work and managing your career. Connect with me at www.wangyip.ca