By Julia Kerr Henkel – executive coach and MD of Lumminos

You may have made it through 2020 as a successful team leader, despite all the challenges, but how do you know if your team is feeling safe and engaged as we forge ahead into another trying year? Psychological safety is a key ingredient for high performing, effective and happy teams.  

When people feel unsafe, they tend to engage in less helpful, more basic behaviours, such as being negative, blaming others, needing to be right, catastrophising by blowing things out of portion, over-reacting or even withdrawing, resigning and giving up.

On the contrary, when people feel safe, they are more likely to be open, calm, curious, willing to collaborate and find win-win solutions. 

First things first

Your first priority as a leader, is to create a sense of safety in yourself - like the metaphor of securing your own oxygen mask first before assisting other passengers in the event of a loss of cabin pressure on an aeroplane.

Often, when under pressure, we perceive a higher level of threat or danger and our thinking brain switches off and we operate from our limbic brain, kicking in the fight, flight, freeze reflex. When we feel safe, our thinking brains are switched on and we can be resourceful, creative and analytical. This is why mindfulness - described as the ability to create perspective and calm while managing emotional reactivity - is key, as it trains you to remain relaxed and calm, yet still alert and attentive to what is going on. For example, by using breathing techniques, or slowing down your movements and speech, you have the ability to shift your physiological symptoms such as your heart rate and muscle tension, reducing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which are released when you’re triggered and anxious and, influence the state of others.

As a leader, you also have a responsibility to create safety for others. Google conducted a 5-year study, ‘Project Aristotle’ on what qualities need to be present for teams to be highly productive and engaged. Of the top qualities and cultural attributes, psychological safety - team members feeling safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other - was by far the most important of the dynamics that set successful teams apart.

What aids psychological safety?

The list includes a host of behaviours, including appreciation, listening, staying curious, asking yourself and others open-ended questions, being honest and keeping the confidence of others.


Take a psychological safety quiz

Use these ten statements below to measure the psychological safety in your team or organisation. Consider each one and rate your agreement on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high). If you “score” 50, congratulations! You’re leading or on possibly the best team in the world right now. Chances are that there were some statements that you didn’t agree with so much, and these are the areas that you can work on, either as a leader or contributor.

  1. On this team, I understand what is expected of me.
  2. We value outcomes more than outputs or inputs, and nobody needs to “look good”.
  3. If I make a mistake on this team, it is never held against me.
  4. When something goes wrong, we work as a team to find the systemic cause and aim to get it right versus being right.
  5. All members of this team feel able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  6. Members of this team never reject others for being different and nobody is left out.
  7. It is safe for me to take a risk on this team.
  8. It is easy for me to ask other members of this team for help.
  9. Nobody on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  10. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

When you’re happy to do so, share these results with your team and ask them to rate their agreement. You can do this anonymously via a tool like Surveymonkey or Google forms, and gather the scores in aggregate. Or if it feels appropriate and brave, run the quiz live at your next team check-in session using a virtual tool like

Whatever the results, see this process as an opportunity to engage and create psychological safety in your team. The conversation that emerges will also help to develop trust and reveal areas where you can focus your HR and people engagement plan for 2021. For more information, visit

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Julia runs Lumminos, a full-service coaching and culture change consultancy which dares its clients to lead, learn, live, love and parent with awareness, skills, compassion and humour.

She is an ICF PCC-level coach, seasoned change and organisational development consultant and speaker. In March 2019, Julia Kerr Henkel studied with Brené Brown in Texas and is now one of a handful Certified Dare to LeadÔ facilitators in Africa, commissioned to deliver work on her behalf. In January 2020, she also launched Dare to Lead #daringclassrooms – an extension of this work tailored for educators – our most important leaders. She runs a program at GIBS aimed at supporting newly certified coaches called Kickstart your Coaching Business.

Prior to starting Lumminos, Julia spent 4 years at Goldman Sachs London and was a director for 8 years at College Hill Investor Relations and Magna Carta, comms and reputation management agencies

For more information, visit

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