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Strategy, Teamwork and Psychological Safety

In this post, I’ll talk about how psychological safety is a prerequisite for creating shared understanding.

Earlier in this series, I mentioned my experience has been that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve. In this post, I’ll talk about how psychological safety is a prerequisite for creating shared understanding and some tools you for building the trust required to create a psychologically safe team climate.


  • Unsafe Team Climate undermines innovation: unsafe environments have a low shared understanding, low team learning, and low team performance.
  • Conflict arises in every team, but psychological safety makes it possible to channel that energy into productive interaction, that is, constructive disagreement, an open exchange of ideas, and learning from different points of view.
  • Psychological safety is the belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. That one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.
  • For a learning culture to thrive, your teams need permission to fail. Experiments are how we learn, but experiments — by nature — fail frequently.
  • One culture-building practice that organizations use to create permission to fail is to treat failures as learning opportunities. Frame continuous improvement around to the way the team works rather than the product it’s working on.
  • Teams will be more willing to experiment if they feel they are appreciated by achieving great outcomes that create value rather than delivering features.
  • Shared values benefit the team. When the team has shared values, they might maintain a tight-knit connectedness that withstands the largeness of the team.
  • Crafting the right questions is central to bringing focus and energy to teams: when people frame their strategic exploration as questions rather than as concerns or problems, a conversation begins where everyone can learn something new together, rather than having the normal stale debates over issues

Teamwork and Shared Understanding

In a previous post, I mentioned that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of the problems they are trying to solve. It has become a personal rallying cry for me to help teams create shared understanding.

Just to make sure I’m not misunderstood: it doesn’t matter at that point if the team lacks a vision or the vision is just poorly communicated, the result is the same: the team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.

Shared understanding is the collective knowledge of the team that builds over time as the team works together. It’s a rich understanding of the space, the product, and the customers.

“Creating Shared Understanding” in Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve user experience, Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J. (2021)

Teams that attain a shared understanding are far more likely to get a great design than those teams who fail to develop a common perception of the project’s goals and outcome (Jared Spool, “Attaining a Collaborative Shared Understanding” in Govella, A., Collaborative Product Design, 2019).

When teams share an understanding, everyone knows what they’re working on, why it’s important, and what the outcome will look like.

Govella, A., Collaborative Product Design (2019)

It’s very easy to verify if the team lacks understanding of the problem the team is trying to solve. Just ask some fundamental questions in your next meeting, like “what is the problem we are trying to solve”? “And for whom”?”

If you get different answers from key stakeholders, it is probably a good indication that you should jump in and help facilitate the discussion that will help the team to align.

Collaboration means shift from thinking big ideas alone and moving into the real-mess of thinking with others.

Van Der Meulen, M., Counterintuitivity: Making Meaningful Innovation (2019)

Changing the behavior to a “we think together” model is the central activity of collaboration. Because thinking together closes a gap; people can now act without checking back in because there were there when the decision was made. They’ve already had debates about all the trade-offs that actually make something work. This may appear a case of “when all was said and done, a lot more was said than done.” However, time needs to be spent in the messy and time-consuming front-loaded process of thinking through possibilities in order to inform the decisions that need to be made (Van Der Meulen, M., Counterintuitivity: Making Meaningful Innovation, 2019).

That said, psychological safety is a prerequisite for creating team climates where “we think together”. Let’s see why.

Unsafe Team Climate undermines Innovation

No one will ask questions or welcome challenges in places where they don’t feel questions will be well-received nor they don’t feel their questions will help the team address real problems.

In psychologically unsafe environments, team members protect themselves from embarrassment and other possible threats by remaining silent when they don’t feel safe. The team doesn’t engage in collective learning behaviors and that results in poor team performance (Mastrogiacomo, S., Osterwalder, A., Smith, A., & Papadakos, T., High-impact tools for teams, 2021):

  • Low common ground: the team’s shared understanding is not updated. Perception gaps increase between team members and the team relies on outdated information.
  • Low team learning: habitual or automatic behaviors keep being repeated, despite the changes in context.
  • Low team performance: Assumptions are not received and are not correct. The work performed is not in line with the actual situation and the delivered outcomes become inadequate.

Teamwork in Psychologically Safe Climate

Team members are not afraid to speak up when the climate is psychologically safe. Team members engage in a productive dialog that fosters the proactive learning behaviors required to understand the environments and the clients and solve problems together efficiently (Mastrogiacomo, S., Osterwalder, A., Smith, A., & Papadakos, T., High-impact tools for teams, 2021):

  • High Common Ground: the team’ shared understanding is regularly updated with new and fresh information.
  • High team learning: new information helps the team learn and adapt. Learning behaviors help the team make changes in assumptions and plans.
  • High team performance: open communications help the team coordinate effectively. Constant integration of learning and adaptation to changes in the context results in relevant work.

Creating Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is the belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. That one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes (Edmondson, A. C., The fearless organization, 2018).

Conflict arises in every team, but psychological safety makes it possible to channel that energy into productive interaction, that is, constructive disagreement, and an open exchange of ideas, and learning from different points of view.

Edmondson, A. C., The fearless organization (2018).

Creating psychological safety is not about being nice to each other or reducing performance standards, but rather about creating a culture of openness where teammates can share learning, be direct, take risks, admit they “screwed up,” and are willing to ask for help when they’re in over their head (Mastrogiacomo, S., Osterwalder, A., Smith, A., & Papadakos, T., High-impact tools for teams, 2021).

Both psychological safety and high performance standards are needed to enter the learning zone and achieve superior team performance."Psychological Safety and Business Performance" in How to create a learning organization (Rudolfsson, F., 2017)
“Psychological Safety and Business Performance” in How to create a learning organization (Rudolfsson, F., 2017)

Psychological Safety and Trust

Trust is the lifeblood for collaboration. To create and sustain the conditions for long-lasting connections, you have to be able to trust others, they have to trust you, and they have to trust each other (Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z.,  Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, 2017).

Without trust, you cannot lead or make extraordinary things happen.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z.,  Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations (2017)

Teammates are not going to open up or challenge each other when they don’t trust each other. When it comes to teams, trust is about vulnerability. Team members who trust one another learn to be comfortable being open — even exposed — to one another around their failures, weaknesses, and even fears. Now, if this is beginning to sound like some get-naked, touchy-feely theory, rest assured is not that is nothing of the sort (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013).

The journey of every high performing team and creating psychological safety starts with addressing the first dysfunctions which is absence of trust.
The journey of every high-performing team starts with addressing the first dysfunctions of teams: the absence of trust (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013)

Vulnerability-based trust is predicated on the simple — and practical — idea that people who aren’t afraid to admit the truth about themselves are not going to engage in the kind of political behavior that wastes everyone’s time and energy, and more importantly, makes accomplishments of results an unlikely scenario (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013).

Brené Brown asked thousands of people to describe vulnerability to us over the years, and these are a few of the answers that directly pierce the emotion: the first date after my divorce, talking about race with my team, trying to get pregnant after my second miscarriage, starting my own business, watching my child leave for college, apologizing to a colleague about how I spoke to him in a meeting, waiting for the doctor to call back, giving feedback, getting feedback, getting fired, firing someone. Across all of her data, there is not a shred of empirical evidence that vulnerability is weakness (Brown, B., Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts, 2018):

  • Are vulnerable experiences easy? No
  • Can they make us feel anxious and uncertain? Yes
  • Do they make us want to self-protect? Always
  • Does showing up for these experiences with a whole heart and no armour require courage? Absolutely 

Here are behaviors and cultural issues that leaders identified as helping in organizations across the world (Brown, B., Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts, 2018):

  1. You can’t to courage without rumbling with vulnerability. Embrace the suck. Courage and fear are not mutually exclusive. When we are pulled between our fear and our call to courage, we need shared language, skills, tools, and daily practices that support through the rumble. Rumble has become more than a weird way to say “let’s have a real conversation, even if it’s tough”. It’s become a serious intention and behavioral cure or reminder. A rumble is a discussion, conversation, or meeting defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious and generous, to stick with the messy middle of the problem identification and solving, to be fearless in outing our parts, and — as psychologist Harrier Lerners teaches — to listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard.
  2. Self-awareness and self-love matter. Who we are is how we lead. So often we think of courage as an inherited trait; however is it less about who people are, and more about how they behave and show up in difficult situations. Fear is the emotion at the center of that list of problematic behavioral and cultural issues — it’s precisely what you would expect to find as the underlying barrier to courage. However, feeling fear is not the barrier to courage, it’s how we respond to fear. The real barrier to daring leadership is our armor — the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that we use to protect ourselves when we aren’t willing and able to rumble with vulnerability.
  3. Courage is contagious. To scale daring leadership and build courage in teams and organizations, we have to cultivate a culture in which brave work, tough conversations, and whole hearts are the expectation, and armor is not necessary or rewarded. If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmored, whole hearts — so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people — we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected.

Psychological Safety and Decision-Making Cultures

Understanding the culture and principles behind how teams and stakeholders make decisions becomes critical for designers to know when what and how to influence in order to drive design vision forward. If some team members are using principles-first logic and others are using applications-first logic to reach a decision, this can lead to conflict and inefficiency from the beginning.

Both consensual and top-down decision-making process can be effective. But members of a global team often have expectations about decision making based on the norms of their own societies.

Meyer, E., The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business, 2014

While leaders have always had to understand personality differences and manage how people interact with one another, as globalization transforms the way we work we now need the ability to decode cultural differences in order to work effectively with clients, suppliers, and colleagues around the world (Meyer, E., The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business, 2014).

Mapping out Cultural Differences on Teams in The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business, Meyer, E., (2014)

When these cultural differences collide, it leads members of global teams to respond emotionally to what they see as ineffective behaviors of others on the team. Worse still, most of us are not even aware of the system our own culture uses to make decisions. We just follow the patterns without thinking about them.

group of people sitting in front of table
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Instead of a top-down, order-taking culture, sense and respond methods (e.g.: lean) push decision-making out into the organization-allowing the people who are closest to the customer, to the markets, and to the situation at hand to make the decisions. It values what these people know, and, even more, it values their ability to learn. With that in mind, we believe there are seven important elements that make up a learning culture (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Sense and respond. 2017):

  1. Humility. If we don’t know what the end looks like, we have to explore to find it.
  2. Permission to fail. Exploring means that sometimes we’ll be wrong. And that’s OK
  3. Self-direction. As we discover new evidence, we continue to push our learning in the directions we feel will yield the best results.
  4. Transparency. Transparency means sharing new information good or bad-broadly so that others may adjust their exploration accordingly.
  5. A bias toward action. Analysis and thoughtfulness are important, but learning comes from action. We must encourage people to take action and not wait for permission.
  6. Empathy. Empathy for our customers, users, and peers helps us find value.
  7. Collaboration. By bringing diverse points of view to bear on a problem, we find better solutions.
top view photo of people discussing
Learn more about how to improve strategic collaboration while working on Distributed, Remote, or Global Teams (Photo by fauxels on

Psychological Safety, Experimentation, and Permission to Fail

Most change efforts fail, even when experienced people are involved, and even when the environment is relatively trusting and safe. We should approach improvement like we approach product—using thoughtful experiments and disciplined, intentional learning (Cutler, J. Making things better with enabling constraints, 2022).

Our goal: better experiments, better outcomes, and a happier (and engaged) team.

Cutler, J. Making things better with enabling constraints (2022)

For a learning culture to thrive, your teams must feel safe to experiment. Experiments are how we learn, but experiments — by nature — fail frequently. In a good experiment, you learn as much from failure as from success. If failure is stigmatized, teams will take few risks (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Sense and respond. 2017).

Permission to Fail and Sandboxing

Sandboxing is a way to reduce the risk of experimentation. The idea is to create a set of procedures, rules, and constraints that your organization can live with and within which failure is acceptable. You will also need cultural permission to experiment. This means that your progress will not be linear and predictable and that you should not be judged by your delivery rate (the amount of stuff you ship) but by your learning rate, and by your overall progress towards strategic goals — in other words, by the extent to which you achieve the outcomes in question. A sandbox creates positive effects for both leaders and the team (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Sense and respond. 2017):

  • For leaders: there is a legitimate fear that their people will get creative in some way that will cause trouble, and for which a leader will be held responsible. Creating clear guidelines within which people can operate can ease that fear.
  • For teams: the fear is about crossing some unstated line. If leaders make the lines clear, it creates space for creativity.

Organisations should use sandbox to define operation constraints for teams that preserve their freedom of action.

Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Sense and respond (2017)

Enabling Constraints

When thinking of creating a learning culture, it helps to focus on the collective behaviors of a system, and the “constraints” of that system inform and shape that behavior. Constraints shape a system by modifying its phase space (its range of possible actions) or the probability distribution (the likelihood) of events and movements within that space. Because constraints are both key actors and key indicators of a system, constraint mapping can be a highly productive first step in considering how to intervene (Juarrero, A., Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System, 1999).

Enabling constraints force alignment of the agents which leads to resonance and this creates a higher order system. The higher order system provides feedback to the agents which constrains their behavior and stabilizes the higher order system

Matts, C., Constraints that enable (2018)

Designing effective enabling constraints is an art. Many things feel intuitively correct but have potentially harmful consequences. For example (Cutler, J. Making things better with enabling constraints, 2022):

  1. In an effort to increase certainty about plans and commitments, the team undertakes a comprehensive annual planning effort. This feels good on the surface, but it forces premature convergence, encourages over-utilization of shared resources, and encourages big, inflexible projects.
  2. In an effort to centralize communication, the team adopts a single tool for documentation (a theoretically enabling constraint). This feels good on the surface—having documentation everywhere is painful—but since a large % of communication with external teams happens outside the central tool, you find a two or three (or more) tiered system of communication (e.g. executive communication happens in slides, not in the tool).

The trick, then, is designing effective enabling constraints. An additional layer to consider is the layer of trust, respect, empowerment, and psychological safety. Example: deadlines. In theory, deadlines can be enabling constraints. However, without empowerment and trust, deadlines become disabling. Teams cut the wrong corners, and optimize for low trust. These two points—the counterintuitive nature of constraints, and the trust/safety element—explain why most change efforts fail. High-trust environments can easily pick the wrong constraints. Or they try too much at once and put people in a state of change overload (Cutler, J. Making things better with enabling constraints, 2022).

Mapping of constraints type to domains with four quadrants: in the Upper Left, "Exaptive Practices" for enabling constraints; in the Upper Right, "Good Practices" for governing constraints; in the Lower Left, "Chaotic" for no effective constraints; in the Lower Right, "Clear" for Fixed Constraints (picture:
“Constraints and domains” (Cynefin, Constraints, 2022)

No enabling constraint is guaranteed to work, but some are better than others. What should someone designing an enabling constraint look out for? (Cutler, J. Making things better with enabling constraints, 2022):

  1. It is easy to know if you are doing it or not. For example, asking everyone to use a single document repository is a bit vague. People WILL need to use other systems to document things. Do those count? What goes in it? What doesn’t? An alternative might be to run an experiment where the team commits to putting ONE document type in the centralized repository or tool.  Put another way, it is within reach and achievable
  2.  It has an expiration date and is treated as an experiment. The best enabling constraints are treated as an experiment. The team commits to giving it an honest try for a period of time. The team is promised an opportunity to weigh in on the experiment, before agreeing to extend it.
  3. It helps people go through the motions. If you have a future state in mind, it helps to help people go through the motions a bit and try things out. In a safe way.
  4. The world doesn’t end if it “fails”. Sometimes things don’t go as planned. That’s normal. The best enabling constraints fail gracefully. They are safe-to-fail probes.
  5. Fast feedback potential. The best enabling constraints will provide fast feedback. Experiments that last forever, with no sense if they are helping/hurting, are dangerous (or at a minimum draining, and encourage people to just work around them).
blue printer paper
Learn more about enabling constraints and some other Project Management skills that will prove invaluable for the effectiveness of design strategists (Photo by Startup Stock Photos on

Overcoming Fear of Failure with Premortems

The scientist and decision-making expert Gary Klein is a proponent of using ” premortems” (doing a postmortem in advance to envision what a potential failure might look like so that you can then consider the possible reasons for that failure. To put the premortem into question form you might ask: If we were to fail, what might be the reasons for that failure? Decision researchers say using premortems can temper excessive optimism and encourage a more realistic assessment of risk (Berger, W., The book of beautiful questions, 2019).

The main benefit of thinking about failure in advance is that it tends lessen the fear and uncertainty surrounding possible failure, if you can begin to envision it, you may see it’s not necessarily catastrophic and that there are ways to respond if it actually happens.

 Berger, W., The book of beautiful questions (2019)

While you’re envisioning the possibility of failure, be sure to consider the opposite, as well, by asking: What if we succeed — what would that look like? Jonathan Fields points out that this question is important because it can help counter the negativity bias. Fields recommends visualizing, in detail, what would be likely to happen in a best-case scenario (more on that in the Importance of Vision). The reality may not live up to that, but that vision can provide an incentive strong enough to encourage taking a risk (Berger, W., The book of beautiful questions, 2019).

Questions you can use to help overcome the fear of failure (Berger, W., The book of beautiful questions, 2019):

  • What would we try if we knew we could not fail? start with this favorite Silicon Valley question to help identify bold possibilities.
  • What is the worst that could happen? This may seem negative, but the question forces the team to confront hazy fears and consider them in a more specific way (which usually makes them less scary).
  • If we did fail, what would be the likely causes? Try the premortem exercise I’ve mentioned earlier, listing some of the potential causes of failure. This should — at least — create a list of pitfalls for you to avoid.
  • … and how would we recover from that failure? Just thinking about how we would pick up the pieces if we fail tends to lessen the fear of that possibility.
  • What if we succeed — what would that look like? Now shift from the worst-case to the best-case scenario. Visualizing success breeds confidence — and provides motivation for moving forward.
  • How can we take one small step into the breach? Consider whether there are “baby steps” that could lead up to taking a leap.

Blameless Postmortems

One culture-building practice that organizations use to create permission to fail is the blameless postmortem. This regularly occurring meeting provides an opportunity for the entire team to go through a recent time period (product release cycle, quarter, etc) or to review a specific incident and honestly examine what went well what could be improved, and what should not be continued (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Sense and respond. 2017)

A lack of Psychological Safety can create an illusion of success that eventually turns into serious business failure

Edmondson, A. C., The fearless organization (2018)

Often these postmortems are facilitated by someone outside the team to avoid any bias or conflict of interest. The motivation for this process is to (Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J., Sense and respond. 2017):

  • Treat failures as learning opportunities: Think of this activity as a continuous improvement but applied to the way the team works rather than the product it’s working on. In order to learn from failures, you need to make an accurate assessment of what happened, why it happened, and how it can be prevented next time.
  • Protect from blame: It would be simple to treat this inquiry as a hunt for the person responsible so that this person can be disciplined. But if this is the outcome of the inquiry, then the people involved will not be motivated to share the truth of what happened. Instead, they will cover it up to avoid punishment. So, in order for people to learn, the blameless postmortem process must include an ironclad guarantee that they can speak without fear of punishment. And that guarantee must be upheld each and every time.

Psychological Safety and Managing by Outcomes

Teams will be more willing to experiment if they feel they are not being measured by the delivery of hard requirements but appreciated by achieving great outcomes that create value.

You might be asking, “what you do mean by an outcome”. Joshua Seiden defines as outcome “a change in user behavior that drives business results.”

Using outcomes creates focus and alignment. It eliminates needless work. And it puts the customer at the center of everything you do

Seiden, J., Outcomes over Output (2019)

You can help the team and leaders to start thinking in terms of outcomes by asking three simple questions (Seiden, J., Outcomes over Output, 2019):

  • What are the user and customer behaviors that drive business results? If the team gets stuck in trying to answer that question, there is a good chance that working on alignment diagrams will help.
  • How do we get people to do more of these things?
  • How do we know we’re right? The easiest (and the hardest) way to answer that question is to design and conduct tests.
The Project Logic Model, adapted from Kellogg Foundation
“What are the changes in behavior that drive business results?” in Outcomes over Output, Seiden, J. (2019)

Managing by outcomes communicates to the team how they should be measuring success. A clear outcome helps a team align around the work they should be prioritizing, it helps them choose the right customer opportunities to address, and it helps them measure the impact of their experiments. Without a clear outcome, discovery work can be never-ending, fruitless, and frustrating (Torres, T., Continuous Discovery Habits, 2021).

multiracial colleagues shaking hands at work
Learn how to use Jobs to be Done to facilitate two-way negotiations between leadership and product teams that allows for managing by outcomes (Photo by Sora Shimazaki on

Psychological Safety and Shared Values

Maybe you’ve experienced the disconnectedness that often accompanies rapid growth in an organization. Where the team was once defined almost entirely through relationships, it now needs something more to keep it together.

Shared values benefit the team. When the team has shared values — despite some members of a team not sharing similar backgrounds or having personal affiliations with each other — they might maintain a tight-knit connectedness that withstands the largeness of the team. What is needed for cohesion is a unifying vision and shared values (which can be fostered through business coaching). If team members clasp onto the same values, members can still feel connected to each other and to the bigger team (Maxwell, J. C., The 17 indisputable laws of teamwork, 2013).

beach bench boardwalk bridge
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Just as personal values influence and guide an individual’s behavior, organizational values influence and guide the team’s behavior

Maxwell, J. C., The 17 indisputable laws of teamwork (2013)

If everyone embraces the same values, team members can still have
a connection to one another and to the larger team. Shared values are like (Maxwell, J. C., The 17 indisputable laws of teamwork, 2013):

  • Glue: when difficult times come — and they do for every team — values hold people together. If the team members don’t know what their values are — and live them out — their chances of working as a unit and reaching their potential are very small.
  • A Strong Foundation: all teams need stability to perform well and grow. Values provide a stable foundation that makes those things possible. You need something to build on, and values make the strongest foundation.
  • A Ruler: values also help set the standard for a team’s performance. In the corporate world, the values are often expressed in a mission statement or set of guidelines for doing business. But sometimes a company’s states values and its real values don’t match up. Shared values function as a measure of expectations and performance when they are genuinely embraced.
  • A Compass: when people embrace strong values, they possess a moral compass that helps them make decisions. The same is true for people and organizations. When the team identifies and embraces a set of values, then in a month, a year, or a decade, no matter how much circumstances change or what challenges present themselves, people on the team still know it’s moving in the right direction.
  • A Magnet: people attract other like-minded people.
  • An Identity: values define the team and give it a unique identity — to team members, potential recruits, clients, and the public. What you believe identifies who you are.

Lots of companies claim they have a set of core values, but what they mean is a list of generic business beliefs that everyone would agree with. Such values have meaning only when they are further defined in terms of how people actually behave and are rank-ordered to reveal priority

Blanchard, K., & O’Connor, M., Managing By Values: How to Put Your Values Into Action for Extraordinary Results (2003)

Here’s a process to bring forth your team’s values to increase your team’s capabilities (Maxwell, J. C., The 17 indisputable laws of teamwork, 2013):

  • Express the values. Take some time to think about the team’s values, perhaps as a team. Then commit them to a document.
  • Measure values against the team’s methods. Observe the team’s actions. Ensure the values you express are the ones you and the team are using. When relied on, the team’s values support the team’s drive and success.
  • Educate the team on values. After you’ve determined your values, educate your team on them. Education needs to happen continuously, plainly, and inventively.
  • Apply the values. Values are useful only if they are used. When you find team members who aren’t applying the team’s stated values, aid those team members in adjusting their actions to line up with the rest of the team.
  • Make the values an organizational convention. Build the team’s values into the framework of the team.
  • Openly applaud the values. Praise induces action. If you commend the team members who exemplify the values of the organization, those values will be adopted by the other members of the team.

Psychological Safety, Beliefs and Emotional Needs

People will often say they agree when they don’t agree. They will say they are on board when they are not on board. They will say that they don’t understand something when they understand it perfectly well. In a top-down organizational hierarchy, “I don’t understand” is a polite way of saying “No, I’m not going to do this.” Why does this dynamic play out time and time again, in organizations large and small, all over the world? It has to do with emotion. Feelings. We’ve all heard the saying “leave your emotions at the door.” It’s a common saying in business. Be objective. Focus on the facts. Nice idea. Unfortunately, it’s not possible (Gray, D., Liminal thinking, 2016).

Why do people say they agree when they don’t agree? Because somebody asked them to leave their emotions at the door, that’s why. And when they left the meeting, they put their emotions back on and went back to work (Gray, D., Liminal thinking, 2016).

Reason does not get people to act. Emotion is what causes people to act.

Gray, D., Liminal thinking (2016)
Actions and Results are observable; beliefs less so (Gray, D., Liminal thinking, 2016)
Actions and Results are observable; beliefs less so (Gray, D., Liminal thinking, 2016)

When a meeting, for example, is not a safe place for people to share their feelings and their needs, you will get people saying one thing and doing another, a story we have all seen play out hundreds of times (Gray, D., Liminal thinking, 2016).

Emotional Needs and the SCARF Model

But needs are not only invisible, they are often intentionally hidden because exposing them makes people feel vulnerable. It can take a bit of digging and detective work to even figure out what they are. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute has developed a brain-science-based model for thinking about emotional needs, which he calls the SCARF model.’ SCARF is an acronym that stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness (Gray, D., Liminal thinking, 2016).

If your emotional needs are not being met, the brain reacts in the same way as it would if you were starving. It activates the primary fight-or-flight reactions in the brain. To the brain, at least, emotional needs are as real as physical ones.

Gray, D., Liminal thinking (2016)
David Rock, "SCARF: A Brain-based Model for Collaborating with and Influencing Others" in Gray, D., Liminal thinking, 2016
David Rock, “SCARF: A Brain-based Model for Collaborating with and Influencing Others” in Gray, D., Liminal thinking (2016)

The SCARF model is definitely a simplified model, and it’s not without limitations. Some would say it’s an oversimplification. Nevertheless, I find it helpful because it provides a quick checklist of needs that are easy to remember, and it provides a good set of things to think about when you are trying to understand where other people are coming from. Here’s a set of questions, based on the SCARF model, which I have found useful (Gray, D., Liminal thinking, 2016):

  1. Status: Does this person feel important, recognized, or needed by others?
  2. Certainty: Does this person feel confident that they know what’s ahead, and that they can predict the future with reasonable certainty?
  3. Autonomy: Does this person feel like they have control of their life, their work, and their destiny?
  4. Relatedness: Does this person feel like they belong? Do they feel a sense of relatedness? Do they trust the group to look after them?
  5. Fairness: Does this person feel like they are being treated fairly? Do they feel that the “rules of the game” give them a fair chance?

When people’s basic emotional needs are met, people do better work.

Gray, D., Liminal thinking (2016)

When they feel valued and important, they perform at much higher levels. When they have a sense of control, they will take initiative. When they feel a sense of belonging, they will contribute more. When they feel they are being treated fairly, they will go the extra mile. If you take these things away, you are starving them emotionally. When people are emotionally starving, they come up with conspiracy theories. They cover up, hide, and hoard information. They play political games (Gray, D., Liminal thinking, 2016).

Psychological Safety and Non-Violent Communication

Psychologists generally agree that conflicts need to be dealt with, but the question is: how? The American psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg (1934-2015) developed the idea of nonviolent communication based on the premise that it’s not what you say, but how you say it.

He distinguishes between speaking snappishly, “language of the jackal”, and speaking from the heart, “language of the giraffe” (giraffes have the biggest heart of any land animal). The language of the jackal causes the speaker to feel superior and the person being addressed to feel bad (Krogerus, M., & Tschappeler, R., The communication book, 2018).

Let me tell you that — from my experience of having lived on four different continents — people underestimate how the way we say things in one culture might be perceived as passive-aggressiveness (or sometimes straight-out-aggressive) in other cultures.

Typical examples of jackal language (Krogerus, M., & Tschappeler, R., The communication book, 2018):

  • Analysis: ‘That’s wrong, because…
  • Criticism: ‘The mistake you made was that you…
  • Interpretations: ‘You do that because…
  • Appraisals: ‘You’re smart/lazy, you’re right/wrong…
  • Threats: ‘If you don’t do it immediately, I’ll have to…

Statements like these are ‘desires in disguise’. Because we have not learned to ask for something politely or to express our wishes constructively, we resort to aggressive language. And aggression leads to counter-aggression or sub-
missive subjugation.

Krogerus, M., & Tschappeler, R., The communication book (2018)

There are two basic skills in using Non-Violent Communication (NVC): expressing yourself and hearing others. Expressing yourself is intended to help the other person understand you without them hearing any blame (the language of the Giraffe”). Let’s say you find yourself in a simple workplace conflict: someone has drunk the decaffeinated coffee you brewed. The four components of expressing yourself under NVC are (Hoffman, K. M., Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018):

  • Observations without judgments: “When I see you drinking my decaf” would be better than “When you steal the coffee.”
  • Feelings without attribution: “I’m frustrated” is better than “You’re annoying me deliberately.”
  • Express universal human needs: “I’d like some consideration” is more appropriate than “That is my coffee to consume.”
  • Make a clear, positive request, not a negative demand: “Could you ask me when you want some?” is more productive than “You cannot have it.”

Psychological Safety and Teambuilding

Making team members click is a matter of time, shared values, complementary skills, and mutual trust. Can you accelerate the process?

Facilitation and the Art of Asking Questions

Crafting the right questions is central to gaining more in-depth insight, inspiring forward movement, and bringing focus and energy to teams (Smutny, M., Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2019).

When people frame their strategic exploration as questions rather than as concerns or problems, a conversation begins where everyone can learn something new together, rather than having the normal stale debates over issues.

Brown, J., & Isaacs, D., The world cafe: Shaping our futures through conversations that matter (2005)

You can develop your own questions based on your knowledge of the team dynamics, or you can experiment with methods like Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. M., 2008), World Café (Brown, J., & Isaacs, D., 2005), or Open Space Technology (Owen, H., 2008).

Here are a few principles that should guide our behavior every time we plan teamwork activities (adapted from World Café):

  1. Set the Context. Attend to why you are bringing people together and what you want to achieve. Context includes who should attend, what questions will generate the most creativity, and how the design of the harvest.
  2. Create Hospitable Space. Meeting spaces make a difference. You want one that feels safe and inviting. When people feel comfortable, they think creatively and listen better.
  3. Explore questions that matter. Craft questions relevant to the real-life concerns of the group. Powerful questions attract collective energy, insight, wisdom, and action. The most powerful questions are open-ended, invite curiosity, and emerge from the lives of the people involved.
  4. Encourage Everyone’s Contribution. Welcoming every participant’s contribution is central to a World Café. Recognize that everyone has ideas and thoughts to share. Nonetheless, some people prefer only to listen. The World Café method provides a structure for both sharing and listening.
  5. Connect Diverse Perspectives. New ideas and discoveries develop as participants move between tables and meet new people. New Perspectives, insights, and recognition emerge.
  6. Listen Together for Patterns and Insights. Listening well determines the success of a World Café. By listening and paying attention to themes, patterns, and insights, the whole group discovers wisdom. People see new connections, shared themes, and insights.
  7. Share Collective Discoveries. Conversation at one table connects with conversations at other tables. The harvest makes these connections visible to the whole group. Encourage a few minutes of silent reflection on the patterns, themes, and deeper questions experienced in the three rounds of small group conversation. Then, invite the larger group to share common insights and discoveries. Capture the harvest by working with notes and a graphic recorder.
turned on pendant lamp
Learn more about how to ask questions that ensure teams are making good decisions in Strategy, Facilitation, and the Art of Asking Questions (Photo by Burak K on

The Team Contract

The Team Contract is a simple poster that helps teams negotiate and establish team behavior and rules, both in general or temporarily for any given project. Rapid Team Contract sessions increase psychological safety and reduce potential conflict among team members (Mastrogiacomo, S., Osterwalder, A., Smith, A., & Papadakos, T., High-impact tools for teams, 2021):

  1. Aligning relationships on appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, making team values explicit.
  2. Creating a cultural base to work in harmonious conditions.
  3. Allowing legitimate measures in case of non-compliance.
  4. Preventing a sense of inequity and injustice to develop within the team.

The poster presents two trigger questions to help participants position in terms of INs – what is accepted – and OUTs – what should not be accepted (Mastrogiacomo, S., Osterwalder, A., Smith, A., & Papadakos, T., High-impact tools for teams, 2021):

  1. What are the rules and behaviors we want to abide by in our team?
  2. As individuals, do we have preferences to work in a certain way?
An example of a Team Contract in High-impact tools for teams (Mastrogiacomo, S., Osterwalder, A., Smith, A., & Papadakos, T., 2021)

The Team Canvas

The Team Canvas is a strategic framework that helps bring team members on the same page. Based on our experience with startup teams and creative agencies, it is made to align teams, increase cohesion and performance, and create a productive team culture, fast. Team Canvas works across multiple touchpoints (Ivanov, A.,The Team Canvas 2015):

  • creating a team;
  • clarifying goals and addressing overall team performance (e.g. when you feel stuck as a team, or when you need to get a lot of stuff done);
  • growing and onboarding new team members;
  • general alignment sessions (recommended every 2-3 months).

Facilitation, Workshops, and Psychological Safety

When leading a session we’re not only asking people to do work in ways unusual to them, we’re asking them to do it in a rapid and high-pressure environment (Pugh, R., Creating Psychological Safety in Workshops, 2019.

The tactics are sexy, but we must remember our chief responsibility as facilitators is to cast a vision for a temporary place where we’ll co-create something together using methods we’ve never used before. This can be intimidating and scary. Safety is our responsibility. Including everyone is our responsibility.

Pugh, R., Creating Psychological Safety in Workshops (2019)

As you’re gearing up for your next workshop, here are a few guiding principles you can use to implement the wisdom from Google’s re:Work research to create Psychological Safety so everyone can get the two things we most need in order of importance (Pugh, R., Creating Psychological Safety in Workshops, 2019):

  1. A chance to feel safe, included, valued and integral
  2. Real traction on an idea or initiative that will have real results on their work after the session is over

What to do before

Prep yourself internally- Remember the workshop isn’t about you doing something to a group of people?—?it’s about you being with them and helping them get what they need. Success is not adhering to a structure, but as our Liberating Structures friends like to say, unleashing the potential inside of each person.

Survey the group- Use a Google form (or any other polling tool) to ask a few questions about the work to be done and ask a few questions about how people are doing like:

  • In a word or short phrase, please describe how you feel about your work right now…
  • What contributions are you proud of in your work?
  • Where do you feel stuck in your work?
  • When you’re doing your best work, what do you feel like?
  • What makes you feel validated by your team?
  • What makes you feel underappreciated by your team?

How to begin

Have an activity at the beginning of your session to ground everyone in the room in gratitude where each person shares something going well in their work or lives. This sets the stage by letting everyone share and puts the principle of Equality in Conversational Turn-Taking front and center.

Lay out the plan for the day, and then pause and allow others to offer their insights on what else might be important to cover. Make sure the whole group is invested in where you’re going.

During the workshop

Allow for different ways of participating- Prepare activities that vary from individual reflection, small group reflection, and large group conversation to ensure people who process differently have the opportunity to digest and share throughout the workshop.

Notice the energy of the room- If folks are discouraged or lethargic, pause and take a walk around the building, or circle everyone up for one of my favorite improv games, Stretch and Reflect. To do this, get everyone in a circle and have each person lead the group in a new stretch, while in the stretch, invite them to share a reflection on the day so far. Make it around the whole room to get everyone’s blood flowing and refocus the group on the task at hand. Beware of experienced yogis in the group! We don’t need an injury due to poorly executed Crow Poses!

Another way of shaking things up throughout the day is to pause for a period of personal connection. Have people share personal stories about their lives in small groups they’ve never shared. I like to use the We! Connect cards to prompt meaningful conversations to deepen relationships.

Affirm dissenting opinions- Be willing to pause if the group seems stuck on an idea or if it seems the meeting would be better served if you veered from your initial plan. This gathering is less about you getting your agenda right and more about giving the team what they need. Sometimes this means attending to thoughts or emotions that arise. Shutting them down reinforces the negative idea not all opinions are valued.

How to Rapidly Assess Psychological Safety

These seven questions help identify what works well and what areas need improvement, ranking each question on a scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. We recommend that this assessment be done between colleagues of the same hierarchical level to avoid biases (Mastrogiacomo, S., Osterwalder, A., Smith, A., & Papadakos, T., High-impact tools for teams, 2021):

  1. Learn from mistakes: if you make a mistake on this team, it is often held again you
  2. Productive conflict: members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. Gain from diversity: people on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. Foster exploration: it is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. Mutual assistance: it is difficult to ask other members of this team.
  6. Strong partnership: no one on this team would desirably act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Optimal contributions: working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

5 Behaviours to Foster Psychological Safety

Contributor safety satisfies the basic human need for autonomy and contribution. You feel safe and are given the opportunity and role clarity to use your skills and abilities to make a difference. Here are five behaviors that will help you foster contributor safety on your team (Clark, T. R., The 4 stages of psychological safety: Defining the path to inclusion and innovation, 2020):

  1. Shift from Tell to Ask: A leader’s coaching continuum ranges from telling at one end to asking at the other. A good leader uses the entire continuum. Too much-telling breeds dependency and learned helplessness. Shift as much as you can to the asking end. Lead through questions more than answers.
  2. Ask People What They Think: It may be true that the four most beautiful words you can ask a team member are, “What do you think?” Those four simple words invite contribution and increased confidence in the process. Never use these words gratuitously, when you don’t really mean it. At the same time, don’t move to a decision or action without asking, even when you think you know the right answer.
  3. Celebrate Small Wins: Certainly, accomplishment is its own reward, but receiving genuine recognition from your peers makes it all the sweeter. As a leader, recognize the successes of your team quickly. Never delay and never resent the opportunity. Celebrate the successes of others and show genuine excitement for their accomplishments.
  4. Help Other People See Their Strengths: Many team members deliver mediocre performance because they don’t realize their strengths. They don’t know themselves. When someone points out their contribution and strengths, they’re shocked and accelerate to a higher level of performance. Do that. Identify the hidden or undervalued strengths that your team members have and bring them to their attention. Ignite the desire to contribute more.
  5. Approach Failure with Curiosity Rather Than Criticism: When performance falters, it means our inputs are not producing the outputs we expected. Something is wrong with what we thought the cause-and-effect relationship would be. When this happens, approach your team members with curiosity rather than criticism. Engage them in a root cause analysis. This will often diffuse the stress and emotional tension that often surrounds poor performance.

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By Itamar Medeiros

Originally from Brazil, Itamar Medeiros currently lives in Germany, where he works as Director of Design Strategy at SAP.

Working in the Information Technology industry since 1998, Itamar has helped truly global companies in multiple continents create great user experience through advocating Design and Innovation principles. During his 7 years in China, he promoted the User Experience Design discipline as User Experience Manager at Autodesk and Local Coordinator of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) in Shanghai.

Itamar holds a MA in Design Practice from Northumbria University (Newcastle, UK), for which he received a Distinction Award for his thesis Creating Innovative Design Software Solutions within Collaborative/Distributed Design Environments.

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