By Mystie Johnson Foote, MD, MBA

If you’ve tried everything you can think of to move your team forward and they still seem to be stuck, the problem could be trust; or really, the absence of trust. You may think that there’s trust since you talk with these people every day, sharing tidbits of your personal life, sharing stories of good and bad interactions with co-workers, talking about what happened at the grocery store in the check-out line, and maybe conversations about COVID and loss. That’s trust, right? Maybe, or maybe not.

Teams that trust deeply share something in common. Psychological safety, which is an environment where each individual is unafraid to speak up, share thoughts and opinions, or make mistakes without fear of criticism or reprisal. A team that has psychological safety will be fearless. This doesn’t mean that one can throw words out thoughtlessly. It simply means that everyone can be authentic in their work together. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Why then is it so hard for teams to trust?

To answer that question, we must take a moment to recognize what we, as humans, have been genetically programmed to do when faced with conflict. Our brains are wired to evaluate every situation as a potential threat. When we are challenged by our boss, a co-worker, a friend, or partner, we unconsciously assess the safety of the situation and prepare to fight or fly. This served our stone age ancestors well, but it is less useful today where we do not face the same potential dangers.

When psychological safety exists, we are able to take on challenges to overcome them rather than respond defensively to them. Rather than an adrenaline rush that makes us flee or defend, we can find pleasure in the work it takes to find a solution to a problem. In turn, this causes a release of oxytocin, that wonderful hormone that helps new mothers bond with their newborn or provides a sense of security experienced with physical human contact that lasts more than 20 seconds. And who doesn’t want that!

While achieving psychological safety may take time, the trust and ability to achieve beyond previous performance makes it all worth it. A team leader can set the stage for success by developing their own self-awareness and coaching others to do the same. When we are self-aware, we are able to pause and become curious when confronted with something that makes us feel anxious or even angry, enabling us to respond differently. It also allows us to avoid judging or criticizing the input of others, and rather reframe and clarify information. In this way, we can ensure that everyone has a voice and feel sincerely welcome to participate and share.