As a coach, one of the most important aspects of my role is creating an environment where clients and workshop participants feel comfortable sharing ideas, asking questions, and challenging assumptions without fear of negative consequences. This state of being able to take interpersonal risks without fear of embarrassment, rejection or retribution is known as psychological safety.
Over the past year in my one-on-one coaching sessions and group workshops, the theme of psychological safety has come up again and again, particularly when working with clients from China. Coming from a culture that values indirect communication and maintaining harmony, many Chinese participants are hesitant to speak up or offer opposing opinions in group settings for fear of causing conflict or losing face. However, an atmosphere of psychological safety is crucial for teams to reach their greatest potential through open dialogue and continuous learning and improvement.
Why is psychological safety so important for effective group work and high-performing teams? Research has shown that when people feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to engage in constructive debate, challenge the status quo when needed, and take the interpersonal risks necessary to learn and grow as a collective. Without psychological safety, members will self-censor contributions and avoid candour necessary for transparency, creativity and change. The teams will fail to consider dissenting viewpoints and reap the benefit of diverse thinking.
As a coach, creating psychological safety is one of my most important responsibilities. It involves establishing clear ground rules around respectful discussion, actively soliciting input from quieter voices, acknowledging the inevitability of failure and reframing mistakes as opportunities to learn rather than face threats of embarrassment or shame.
When working with groups from China, extra care must be taken to establish an atmosphere where ideas can be shared freely without concern for jeopardizing relationships or “losing face.” Early on, I take time to normalize differences of opinion as natural and encourage applying the same level of thoughtful consideration to opposing views as one’s own initial stance. Participants are reassured that no single idea holds more value than another, and it is through respectful discussion of diverse thinking that insight emerges.
This year, I have noticed psychological safety building gradually over the course of multi-day workshops as familiarity and trust develops within the group. While directness may still feel uncomfortable for some, as comfort levels rise participants open up more in sharing tentative ideas, posing questions to learn from others instead of asserting knowledgeability, and tackling difficult topics respectfully.
To further support this growth, I make a point to check in often with quieter voices through small group discussions or one-on-one mentoring to understand perspectives being held back from the larger forum due to humility or concern over disruption. Bringing these valuable thoughtful contributions to light helps all members benefit while encouraging more balanced participation.
As the dynamics have shifted to allow for more constructive debate and willingness to take interpersonal risks through the sessions, I’ve observed markedly improved outcomes. Teams generate more innovative solutions encompassing a fuller range of considerations and develop tighter bonds through collaborative struggle. Participants report heightened learning and increased confidence in their ability to meaningfully contribute perspectives to generate insight.
Continuing to foster an atmosphere of psychological safety, especially when guiding intercultural groups, will remain a focus area for me as a coach. It is through courageous sharing of ideas without threat of judgment that high-trust teamwork and its benefits can fully bloom. Helping clients and participants establish this productive dynamic will always be at the heart of my approach.
How can you foster psychological safety in your workplace?