Psychological Safety and Belonging

authentic leadership Feb 13, 2019

by Sara Ness

There are twenty-two of us in my living room the day before the training starts.

I’ve run the Authentic Leadership Training more times than I can count. Actually, about thirty five times, which is countable but only because I spent an hour with my calendar. I know the content so well I can teach it without a script. I have every possible change memorized. But there’s one code that I’m still working on cracking.

The people in this room are all different ages, from their twenties to their sixties. Among them are computer engineers, managers, teachers, coaches, musicians, and entrepreneurs. They have different backgrounds, cultures, and expectations.

I prefer having multiple leaders in front of the room. They help me teach and give the participants an example of what different types of leadership can look like. They make sure that participants can focus on learning rather than logistics. I need the staff, but twenty-two different people are hard to manage, especially when I only have one evening to set their culture.

I’m great at creating trainings, but…how do I create a reliable, high-performing leadership team?

I haven’t perfected this art, and maybe I never will. But I have been lucky enough to run a years-long experiment on the process. I teach practices based on “Authentic Relating”, a philosophy that encourages personal vulnerability in contact with other people, and explores what happens in that space between. Authentic Relating, or AR, is practiced through “Games” that help give participants a direct experience of expressing themselves, being seen, and trying on others’ point of view. It’s honesty practice in the real world – vulnerability that doesn’t assume acceptance, and empathy that never stops trying.

Aside from the leadership training, I’ve also led a statewide AR retreat every three months for almost seven years and helped create the three thousands-strong Texas communities that attend it.

I’ve gotten to test a lot of different theories on group dynamics. Although I will always keep learning and being surprised by my work with groups, I want to share some stories of what I’ve discovered here with you, and explore the concept of “psychological safety” – the one thing that has made the most difference between success and failure in my teams.


I used to run the Authentic Leadership Training pretty traditionally. I had a team of one or two teachers and a couple logistics helpers on the back end. Then, a few years ago, I started thinking more seriously about how people actually learn.

I realized that the teachers and helpers I brought on for the training were receiving as much value as the participants, if not more. They got to review the content, learn it better by teaching it, and tended to be much more engaged in our local community of practice after teaching than before. I started asking myself, “could there be a way to engage more people on staff?”

This is how the ALT Staff Team was born.

The staff team involves between fifteen and twenty-five staff for about the same number of students. We always have a waitlist, even though staff, aside from the core teachers, still pay a small amount to attend. The staff know that the community and experience they’ll get from being on the team is worth it. Staff cook the food for the weekend, clean dishes, act as “butlers” to attend to participants’ physical needs during teaching sessions, are “lovers” offering physical or emotional support, and keep the course leads adequately supplied with tea and hugs.

The staff team works hard all weekend long. As well as doing logistical tasks, they also support what is a very emotionally intense training for most participants. The ALT asks leaders to be authentic, transparent, and revealed (what we call the “ART” of leadership). In discovering their art, many students have breakthroughs around why they’re doing what they’re doing in their life. Those breakthroughs challenge who we know ourselves to be.

It takes skill to support the integration of a breakthrough. All staff are expected to have that skill, or know how to hand over the reins to another leader who can support the situation better. The staff have to model the skills they teach: self-awareness, humility, empathy, the ability to direct when needed and surrender when not.

Some staff teams have performed well together, organically picking up tasks and emotional load from each other. Others have dissolved into conflict. I remember a training where I ran every hour from participant breakdowns to staff arguments, spending more time putting out fires than actually teaching! Some staff felt like others weren’t doing their part of the work. Some had pre-existing relationships that were flaring up under stress. A few people ended up taking on most of the load, then burning out and feeling resentful. It was like most volunteer organizations I’ve seen or run, and many non-volunteer ones too.

The staff team has evolved over the years. Most teams get better the longer they work together, and luckily, culture can be carried on by just a few individuals. Usually half or more of the group is new every time, recent graduates of the last training round mixed with experienced leaders or former trainees coming in from other communities around the world. The team has to form fast and work together well.


There are twenty-two people in my living room on Thursday night. It’s the first time many of them have met, and they seem willing but tentative around each other. We begin with names and a check-in: three words to describe how you’re doing right now. Micah, one of the training leads, follows by setting context for the meeting, telling people what we’re going to do and about how long it’s going to last. A key part of what we teach in the ALT is how to set context in a way that others actually want to follow your plan. Micah checks with the room: any questions? Is everyone bought in? He gets a roomful of thumbs-up.

We could go straight into logistics now, because there’s a lot to cover: the roles, staff expectations, what to bring to the training, who is attending, any participant or staff concerns. But we know better than to dive in straight away. First, we need to create psychological safety.

Psychological safety is a term that’s become increasingly popular in the last few years, coined by Harvard Business professor Amy Edmonson in 1999 and backed up by a two-year-long study at Google of what creates the most successful teams. Edmonson defines psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of the team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

Psychological safety is the ability to admit mistakes and talk openly without fear of rejection. When workers on a Shell oil rig went through a program like the ones we teach to increase vulnerability in the workplace, it contributed to an 84% drop in accidents company-wide and an unprecedented level of productivity.

Google found similar results. In a study codenamed “Project Aristotle”, they studied 180 teams company-wide to understand why some performed better than others. The highest defining factors of team success were, one, safety of discussion – that each member of the group spoke a relatively equal amount – and two, social sensitivity: that team members noticed and responded to each other’s emotional states.

There’s no doubt that teams are struggling today. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 51% of workers are keeping an eye open for new jobs. Only one third feel actively engaged at work; another 50% are neutral and 16% are actively disengaged. This has a massive impact on safety, productivity, turnover, and general business success. Compared to businesses with low employee engagement, those with high engagement experience 40% fewer quality defects in their products, drastically lower turnover rates (59% less in low-turnover organizations, 24% in high-turnover ones), 70% fewer safety incidents, and 20% higher profits.

What does “high engagement” mean? Gallup measures twelve different elements to assess this, Two have to do with what I’d call the hardware of a company: are employees clear on what’s expected of them, and do they have the materials and equipment needed to do their job well? The other ten questions are on the software: how much employees feel like their company cares about their opinions, their growth, their purpose, and who they are as a person. As the 2016 report says,

“Employees need to know that they are more than a number. They need to know that someone is concerned about them as people first and as employees second. The fifth element of engagement may seem like a “soft” aspect of management, but there are key payoffs when employees feel cared for in a work environment. They are more likely to experiment with new ideas, share information, and support coworkers personally and professionally. They are prepared to give their manager and organization the benefit of the doubt, and they feel more equipped to strike a balance between their work and personal lives.”

Employee engagement, feeling cared about and listened to: these all point to a psychologically safe workplace where people care share their thoughts, opinions, and selves without worrying about rejection.


I put a lot of attention on psychological safety in my trainings. I teach vulnerability within leadership. Participants have to feel safe to share. Before I get into logistics or action with a group, whether it’s a business, school, or community, I first put attention on their culture. How “in” do members of the group feel with each other? How honestly do they express with each other and to the leader(s)? Do they bring conflict openly?  Are they playful or reserved, are they hugging or shaking hands? These are all signs of safety or the lack thereof. Luckily, with some work, good culture can be created.

Back in my living room, I ask people to share their names before dividing them into pairs. I ask each pair to find out their partner’s “superpowers” and “kryptonites”, giving each member three minutes to talk. What is this person uniquely good at that could serve the training? Where are they still working on their skills? This question promotes both vulnerability and appreciation, two essential elements of psychological safety. Discussing it in pairs gives everyone a chance to talk. Having the space to feel heard is a quick way into a safe culture.

I make sure to demonstrate the exercise first. People respond more to what a leader does than what they say; if I show vulnerability, others will as well.

“One of my superpowers is being aware of a lot of different things at once,” I tell them. “I’m good at keeping in mind why we’re doing what we’re doing at all times, and tracking the energy of a group as well as the content I’m teaching so that I don’t bore or overwhelm a tired crowd. A kryptonite is that I’m not always great at noticing or following up with individual participants. When I’m holding the thousand-foot view, I’m not great at seeing everything on the ground, and sometimes people feel missed by me because of that.”

As a general rule, every superpower has a kryptonite and every kryptonite has a superpower. What I’m bad at defines what I’m good at. Recognizing this in a group can bring a lot of acceptance. When someone isn’t able to do their job, I first try to ask myself what superpower would be lost if they fixed their kryptonite. If I make a feelings-based employee show up on time for work every day, will she lose access to her powerful intuition? If I curb someone’s sharp tongue, will they stop noticing crucial defects in our company’s systems? To create safety in a team, I need to extend positive regard. I assume that everyone’s actions are an integral part of who they are, and recognize that with the person even as I share the impact of their sharp tongue or lateness on me and on the group.

After superpowers and kryptonites and a few shares from individuals to the whole group, it’s time to get into logistics. I check if there’s anything else people need before we go there; leaving space for others to give their input, and actually changing my plan based on the input, is a key factor for psychological safety.

There are no comments. I hesitate before diving in – something still feels off. People are sandwiched together on the couches, but they aren’t touching each other much. We’re a very touch-centered community when comfortable. They aren’t making jokes, and they aren’t trying to tease me, which are also signs of safety when present. What does this group need?

In the ALTs, I often teach about “translation” versus “transmission”. Translation is what you say, transmission is what you do. People respond behaviorally far more to what you do. You can’t espouse a set of organizational values and expect them to follow or understand if they don’t see a model. That’s transmission. But sometimes, when a concept is new or not yet established in a group’s vocabulary, you need translation. I’d transmitted vulnerability and connection. Maybe I hadn’t translated what safety really looks like.

I ask the staff team, “How many of you here feel like outsiders? Like you don’t belong in this group?” Most people raise their hands.

“Look around. Do you notice how many of us have our hands up? It’s hard to enter a group and feel part of it. Most of us stay a little on the outside until we feel it’s really safe to come in. But when we’re outside, we can’t invite others in. We all end up testing the waters and nobody starts swimming.

“For the course of this weekend, I want to invite you to try feeling like you already belong and inviting others to belong as well. You can do this through appreciation – giving praise and recognition when you see a staff member doing something well – through consensual physical touch, like putting a hand on someone’s shoulder or offering them a hug, or through suggesting ways to make the training better. Pretend you have a right to do that. Because if all of us keep ourselves on the outside, there’s nobody to invite us in.”

During that ALT, one of the staff members made this post:

“I’m at the ALT retreat working with staff and noticed that all of the staff have the same purpose and all strongly believe in that purpose so much so that we all have nothing but trust for one another.

Instead of needing a micro-manager giving us a carrot or stick, each person is self-driven and finds their own way of getting to that purpose. It feels like we all have one hand on an Ouija board and can surrender to the group intelligence.”

The staff knew they were present to serve, to make sure the participants had the best possible learning experience. But more importantly, they knew they could trust each other. They knew they were part of something they were invited into. They knew they were safe.

(To learn more about what the Staff Team’s purpose, norms, and roles look like, check out this document, which is given to all staff prior to the ALT. For more information about the ALT, visit this page.)



Psychological Safety:

Shell Oil:

Google study:


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