The Culture Code: How psychological safety forms the foundation of teamwork.

A job in a growing business doesn’t always feel safe. Bold leaders and entrepreneurs often pride themselves on this. They buy into the ethos of “move fast and break things,” proselytizing the value of innovation, agility, and big ideas over predictability and security.

This approach is certainly exciting. And it does produce big results. But if you’re not careful, that big result could be a massive failure—and the thing you break could be your company.

The value of safety.

The fact is that safety is a core element of organizational culture. Safety is the foundation for innovation, excellence, and growth.

I’m not referring to physical safety (although that’s essential, too—hello, OSHA), but psychological safety. Your people need to feel safe to speak up, to be their true selves at work, to share their ideas, thoughts, and opinions, no matter how difficult it may be. If your people don’t feel safe, they’ll leave—or worse, become disengaged, resentful, and entirely unproductive, obstructing rather than supporting your organizational initiatives.

In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle explains that psychological safety is one of three pillars (along with purpose and vulnerability) of positive organizational cultures, but that few leaders can recognize it for it what it is. Instead, he writes, “[w]e consider safety to be the equivalent of an emotional weather system—noticeable but hardly a difference-maker.” 

It’s about cues.

Smart business leaders are able to cultivate psychological safety on both the collective and individual level, effectively changing the emotional weather. How? Believe it or not, it primarily comes down to minute gestures and signals—what Coyle calls “belonging cues.” 

Examples include the following:

  • eye contact
  • forms of physical contact, such as handshakes, hugs, and high-fives
  • humor and laughter
  • active listening
  • “attentive courtesies” like opening doors or saying “thank you”

Together, these kinds of cues communicate “you’re safe here.” As Coyle writes, belonging cues “seek to notify our ever-vigilant brains that they can stop worrying about dangers and shift into connection mode.” This allows people to communicate more openly and genuinely with one another. Psychological safety is what creates chemistry.

How do you build safety?

“Building Safety” is probably my favorite chapter of Coyle’s book because it offers so many ideas for small, immediate actions that can improve culture and drive results. The ideas can apply to any team, any group of people—from employees to contractors to vendors to volunteers.

It’s not just about smiling or holding doors open. Belonging cues signal that an interaction is important, the person on the other side is valued, and there’s an investment in continuing the relationship.

Here are a few ways you can incorporate belonging cues and build psychological safety at your organization:

1. Take time to listen. Get to know your team. Use both your eyes and your ears, but really lean into your ears. Some of the most important indicators of psychological safety (or a lack of it) are silent. 

Look at who is in the room and who isn’t. Which kinds of people are and aren’t represented within your organization? Indeed, listening is a key aspect of any equity, diversity, or inclusion effort.

Go beyond the surface. Great teams tend to have both remarkable demographic and psychological diversity. Do you know which of your employees are introverts and which are extroverts? Do you know what genres of music they like, what types of books they read, what kinds of hobbies they engage in outside of work?

2. Give everyone equal access to the podium. This isn’t easy. Some people are natural-born speakers and leaders, but most of us need substantial, ongoing support and encouragement to speak up and share our thoughts. All those hand-raisers from school discouraged us from trying. Take on the role of a teacher and make sure everyone gets equal speaking time.

3. Set high standards. Establish an unwavering commitment to excellence, and hold your team to it. Your people might just surprise you—they’ll rise to the occasion and hold others accountable as well. After all, no one wants to do B-level work.

4. Demonstrate confidence. Encouragement and a positive attitude go a long, long way. You can propel your team to new heights with just a few words. The next time someone seems unsure about a task, rather than expressing doubt or offering assistance immediately, try saying something like “I know you can do this!” 

Note that confidence and vulnerability go hand-in-hand. The goal is to strike a balance—to create an environment where people can do their best work and ask directly for help when they need it.

5. Know that one negative person can impact the productivity of an entire team. Specifically, a slacker or other toxic employee can reduce productivity by 30% to 40%

If you can identify a negative contributor, don’t simply write them off or remove them from the situation. Think about their perspective, their issues, the needs they are and aren’t expressing. Try and coach them out of the behavior. Ask questions: “What’s going on? How can I help?”

Give them a chance or two to correct their behavior and meet the high standards of your organization. But don’t extend your patience infinitely. If you can’t do anything about that bad apple, get rid of them.

The fundamental truth in this chapter, and all of The Culture Code, is that culture is about people, not a person, singular—not the business leader, not a star employee, not the loudest talker. The best organizations are created for and by people, lots of people. They allow all kinds of people to feel safe, vulnerable, and connected to their purpose. 

Mostly, they give people what everyone wants: happiness. Today, over a third of our population has indicated they have to work multiple jobs to pay the bills. The result, work has become more than 50% of our life. If you can create an environment as an employer that embraces happiness through fun, belonging and growth, you’ll build a team that wants to come to work rather than needs to come to work!

That seems like as good a note as any to leave on! I hope you enjoyed this three-part exploration into The Culture Code. If you missed part 1, click here; for part 2, click here

For more articles about building your business, be sure to check out our blog. And if you haven’t already, I encourage you to join Ruby Reads, our monthly book club for small business owners.

Be well.