How trust relates to Psychological safety

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According to the psychologist Abraham H. Maslow people have five categories of needs. In his theory, lower basic needs in the list are prerequisites for higher needs. And Safety is second from the bottom on the list, after physiological needs like breathing and food, and before feeling a part of a bigger whole and connected to a team. When you look at safety from the perspective of need in a team instead, Patrick Lencioni in his book The five dysfunctions of a team offer other insights and puts trust as the foundation for a team to build upon.

If there is no trust between people in the team we don’t discuss, debate, and take care of problems or each other. So, if you have a dispersed and/or new team, make sure you actually get to know each other. If it is not possible with a physical event like kick-off, make sure everyone in the team knows each other, not only by name but also by interest, values, motivation, strengths, weaknesses etc. These insights give you and your team an understanding of your team players and a base to create trust, making all the team players do their best, regardless of outcome.

It is easy to mix up Trust with Psychological Safety. The primary difference between Psychological Safety and trust is that Psychological Safety consists of beliefs in the group norms – what it means to be a member of that group. Trust focuses on believing in a person. Psychological Safety is defined by how group members believe they are viewed upon by others in the group. Trust regards how one person views another. Trust is a vital part of Psychological Safety and where to start when building a team, but Psychological Safety needs to exist – to some extent – in order to enable trust.

This is a catch 22. The starting point to unwire this loop is to get to know each other first. Here a “Pecha Kucha[2]” session could be one format of doing this, but don’t forget a slide about your weakness though, and expose our improvement potential, not only the best parts of us. When I meet a new team, I introduce myself thoroughly for 10-15 minutes from a private, but also work perspective with a PowerPoint presentation. The final part is about my superpowers and my gaps. These gaps are what I especially want the team’s feedback on. My current gaps, to be able to become the best Agile coach out there – and not just the most experienced – are the following:

  • Trigger happy – I often execute before thinking.
  • Unclear – When I write I expect people to understand, but most often they don’t.
  • 08 (phone prefix for Stockholm) – Born and raised in Stockholm I come with an attitude not always welcome in the countryside here in Sweden.
  • Weak business knowledge – Often with a new client I don’t understand the business.

What are your gaps? Are you actively working with them and receiving feedback? Or are you just like we all, hiding your gaps from your team and hope they will never be exposed, believing trust comes from great effort only? A metaphor from sports on how to separate trust and Psychological Safety:

As a defender, I want to be able to trust that my goalkeeper saves any mistakes from me and my team- mates. But it is only with Psychological Safety that we dare to give each other constructive feedback in order to become more interacted. As we play more together, I can learn to trust the goalkeeper, and he can learn to trust me. It is not certain that we will win, but with confidence we can certainly do our best.

This is a part of the book Psychological UNsafety from the trenches you can order or read more about here.

[1] Five questions about psychological safety, answered: 

[2] Pecha Kucha: