The 5 key ingredients for psychological safety in your team
Quick: what’s the single most important ingredient for better teamwork? A sense of purpose? Agility? Emotional intelligence? Electrolytes? Gluten-free donuts in the break room?
There’s actually a mountain of compelling evidence that the single most important ingredient for healthy, high-performing teams is simple: it’s trust. When Google famously crunched the data on hundreds of high-performing teams, they were surprised to find that one variable mattered more than any other: “emotional safety.” Also known as: “psychological security.” Also known as: trust.
Why? Because trust makes groups smart.
Trust is a multiplier for intelligence
Psychological safety is like oxygen. It’s the oxygen our brains crave to be honest, creative and curious in front of others. It’s what determines whether we feel able to ask a “dumb” question, take a risk, challenge the status quo, or share a crazy idea. In short: it’s what allows us to bring our whole brains to work.
The challenge is: most workplaces are chock full of hidden blockers, banana peels and brain triggers.
When we don’t have psychological safety in a group, we fall victim to a set of cognitive biases or “trust traps.” We go on auto-pilot. We fall back into defensive behaviors. Sleepwalking. Hiding. Groupthink. Avoiding courageous conversations. All of these are symptoms of low-trust environments.
Why? Because our brains are, first and foremost, wired for defense. No matter how smart or highly evolved we are, we’re still running hunter-gatherer wetware between our ears. And our brains are deeply programmed by thousands of years of evolution to not go against the tribe. This means that when we don’t have psychological safety, our brains default to behaviors like (paraphrasing the brilliant Amy Edmondson):
- Don’t challenge authority (because that’s disruptive).
- Don’t ask questions (because that might make us look stupid).
- Don’t make mistakes (because that makes us look incompetent).
- Don’t offer ideas (because that make us look intrusive).
- Don’t question the status quo (because that makes us seem negative).
All of these are the exact opposite of what we say we want most from people at work right now. We say we want things like “creativity,” and “innovation,” and “critical thinking.”
But asking for these things without providing psychological safety is like asking people to go deep sea diving without an oxygen tank. You can yell or complain or give as many inspiring speeches as you want — it just won’t work. Our brains need the oxygen.
The Stupidity Paradox
From that vantage point, boosting psychological safety for your team is an absolute no-brainer. Even for data-driven, engineering-lead cultures like Google, its become a cornerstone of how they train managers. It’s not touchy-feely kumbaya; it’s what determines the collective intelligence of your team. When teams don’t have it, they can fall victim to what researcher André Spicer calls “the Stupidity Paradox” — where smart people end up doing dumb things at work.
SCARF: 5 ingredients for psychological safety
So how do you build trust and psychological safety in your team? Researcher David Rock has carefully studied the brain science of trust and engagement at work, and breaks it down into 5 key ingredients — summed up by the cozy acronym “SCARF:”
• Status: A sense of importance and belonging.
• Certainty: Clarity. An ability to predict what will happen.
• Autonomy: Agency. A sense of freedom and control. Being treated like an adult.
• Relationships: Connecting on a personal level. Feeling like we know each other.
• Fairness: The rules are fairly applied. Things are fair and above-board.
When brains have their SCARF on, they’re all warm and cozy and safe and creative. When they don’t, they tend to be triggered and anxious and armored up. When there’s drama or conflict or dysfunction in a team, in 90% of cases I find it can be traced back to one or more of these five elements.
How do you apply this?
The biggest question I get is: that all sounds great, but how do you actually apply SCARF in the real world? Quickly:
- Status: Go out of your way to create a sense of importance and belonging for others. Make people feel like they belong. Flood the zone with ‘belonging cues.'” Begin and end meetings and interactions by making people feel seen, recognized and appreciated. Laugh at this if you want to, but try it and see what happens. You’ll be amazed. And most importantly: if there are underlying issues related to power, decision-making or hierarchy in your team or organization, then for God’s sake stop avoiding them and address them. Head on. Have a courageous conversation or two. Status triggers like these are deadly and they are dragging down your team. Humans often avoid frank conversations about power, but this avoidance always backfires.
- Certainty: Be predictable. Create radical clarity. Even when outcomes and environments are constantly changing, you can still create process certainty. Stick to the same cadence, rhythms and rituals. Build muscle memory. Stop constantly changing your process or strategy or re-drawing the org chart — you’re giving people motion sickness. Clarity and predictability allow brains to relax and sink into the task. Constantly shaking them like a snow globe just pisses them off and guarantees agita.
- Autonomy: Treat people like grown ups. Resist the tendency inherent in Magical Managerialism (“I’m special and you’re not”), Boss-ism and Fixed Hierarchy to infantilize staff and direct reports. (You pretend not to do this but you do sometimes do it — we all do.) Treat colleagues as equals. Go out of your way to put others in the driver’s seat and explicitly invite them to make recommendations, proposals and decisions. This dramatically increases your likelihood of having an adult brain show up, instead of a surly teenage one.
- Relationships: Create rituals for people to show up as humans. What are they passionate about? What floats their boat? Demonstrate fallibility and vulnerability. Try the User Manual to Me. You don’t have to look at pictures of each others’ kids or talk endlessly about your Labradoodles — but connecting as humans really does help at work.
- Fairness: Make the rules of the game clear and transparent. When in doubt, write them down. Make the implicit explicit. Get serious about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Back-room deals and implicit norms (“it’s just kind of understood that that’s how we do things around here”) undermined fairness and reduce the collective intelligence of the entire group. Recognize that what seemed fair in the past may no longer actually be fair today.
Death by SCARF: how to create needless drama and piss people off at work
Nobody sets out to trigger a threat response in colleagues, or rob others of psychological safety at work. But there are a whole series of little triggers and invisible behaviors in organizations that constantly rub peoples’ brains the wrong way. If you want to create needless friction and drama, or have colleagues smile and nod during meetings while they secretly hate your guts, here’s some easy ways to do it.
“Hi! I’m very busy and an extremely big deal, and you’re not. Sorry I’m late for our meeting — I just met with the CEO about our top secret Super Important Plan that I’m not allowed to tell you about. Anyway, what’s this meeting about again? Can we reschedule?” If you want to make a human hate your guts, one of the easiest ways to do it is: create the impression you think you’re better than them. Unfortunately, organizations are full of unconscious status triggers like this (Org Charts, Boss-ism, Status Signalling, Ego-systems, etc.)
Constantly cancel or reschedule meetings. Constantly change your planning process and templates, so that people are unable to develop any muscle memory or predictably. Constantly re-draw the org chart and shift reporting relationships around so no one knows what the hell is going on. Reinvent the strategic plan in closed-door processes that nobody understands but you. Tell people you have something important to discuss with them, but don’t tell them what it’s about — so that they can spend all weekend worrying about it. Uncertainty = anxiety!
Treat staff like children. Micro-manage. Take a project away from someone the moment they make a mistake. Separate staff into “thinkers” and “doers,” and treat the doers like cute little helpers or robots.
Skip over getting to know each other as people, because that’s all just group hugs and kids’ stuff. Burn people out in never-ending Death Marches. Encourage people to eat lunch at their desk, instead of talking to each other. Ram content into your staff retreats and meetings so that people have no time to hang out together or have unstructured chats.
Promote people for vaguely defined personal reasons. Run an Old Boys Club. Pay people and give them raises based on some secret, backroom handshake formula that leadership makes up as they go along. Don’t take diversity and inclusion seriously, because you don’t need that here. Let the same people chronically over-talk in meetings. Make decisions by managerial fiat instead of transparent criteria.
The search for intelligent life at work
Once you get good spotting these SCARF ingredients — and their opposite — you start seeing them everywhere. And regardless of where we sit in the org chart, there’s so much each of us can do to make others feel safe. Create a sense of belonging and importance for others. Increase clarity around how a process will work. Promote a sense of freedom and choice for others. Model personal connection and empathy. Champion a greater sense of fairness. Help lighten the mood and suck fear out of the room.
Watch what happens when you do. It’s like blowing a bellows full of oxygen into people’s brains — you can literally see them light up and become juicier and more creative. And above all: create more psychological safety for yourself! Put your own oxygen mask — oops I mean SCARF — on before helping others. Flood your brain with belonging cues (“you belong here!” “you got this!”) instead of panic signals (“omg you’re so far behind!” “you suck at this” “people think you’re a fraud!”) and notice the difference it makes to your creativity. You’ve got a beautiful brain there and I want you to keep it nice and cozy and psychologically safe.
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