the secret sauce to high-performing teams

Adel Wu
4 min readDec 1, 2023

I recently attended a conference for Engineering Leadership, and while there were a slew of talks and discussion groups surrounding many technical topics, there were also a decent amount centered around the more “soft-skill” aspects of leadership such as team culture, onboarding new teammates, connecting during remote work, and gauging IC productivity that I realized I think a lot about.

One topic in particular surprised me once I learned a bit more, and that was the concept of psychological safety. I had thought this term was mostly a buzz-word, used to make the concept of feeling safe more fancy sounding; but I hadn’t realized it actually had lots of history. Research shows that psychological safety is one of the most important dynamics that contribute to high-performing and effective teams!

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is a culture of rewarded vulnerability that allows team members to take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed.

Everyone has gone through these types of potentially embarrassing experiences: being a n00b on the team, not knowing how many questions to ask before it gets too annoying. Bringing up a novel idea in a brainstorm or large meeting with many higher ups. Pushing back on something most people agreed on already. Causing a huge money-losing emergency…

There is a lot of history on the concept of psychological safety, but the most popularized framework on developing and cultivating this was authored by Timothy Clark, and goes like this:

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety (diagram)

(Stage 1) Inclusion Safety

Feeling included and like you can be your authentic self at work is the first step in this process. Do you feel like your teammates know who you are, as a person? You should feel like others are genuinely curious about you, not just tolerant of your existence. Your individuality has value and you aren’t afraid of being yourself.

Small gestures can make a big difference here:

  • include everyone in meetings and calls, not creating cliques intentionally
  • know how to pronounce everyones names, and their pronouns
  • create team-wide rituals that are consistent and fun
  • celebrate newcomers onto the team
  • actively ask and recall teammate’s outside of work activities, chat and share often
  • active listening

If inclusion safety isn’t established first, barriers between people will stay up and you won’t feel as though you are truly on a team. This can also lead to feelings of superiority and hierarchy, that aren’t conducive to change.

(Stage 2) Learner Safety

Learner safety comes when team members have the space to make mistakes while growing. An engaged learning process comes with many mistakes, and in this stage fear should be detached and mistakes should be rewarded. Experimentation, inquiries, and giving/receiving feedback can push a team to go beyond just execution, and all grow together in the process.

Some things that can facilitate this process:

  • Managers and Senior engineers leading by example (i.e. admitting when they don’t know something, or asking “n00b” questions in meetings)
  • encourage exploration and curiosity, by delving into rabbit holes and dedicating time to learning
  • make sure questions in chats don’t go unanswered
  • share publicly things you learned recently!
  • share past mistakes and stories of how you overcame challenges (vulnerability)
  • create forums to learn together, or 1:1
  • asking actively during meetings if people have questions or want more info

(Stage 3) Contributor Safety

How can you help others contribute meaningfully? When we create contributor safety for others, we empower them with autonomy, guidance, and encouragement in exchange for effort and results. Wins are celebrated, and work feels purposeful and impactful. Bad contributor safety looks like micromanaging, when there isn’t trust or accountability for a team to perform at its best.

Things to keep in mind at this stage:

  • encourage cross-function collaboration. Roles can be clearly defined but learning from others can help people think outside the box.
  • help people understand why they work on what they work on. Moving people closer to the meaning of their work is the strongest driver of engagement.
  • be inclusive when asking people their opinions.
  • don’t shut people’s ideas down; rather find nuance and draw out more.

(Stage 4) Challenger Safety

This reminds me of the concept of Radical Candor. Can you feel safe speaking up about opportunities you see for improvement? It allows us to feel safe to challenge the status quo without retaliation or the risk of damaging our personal standing or reputation. People can disagree productively. When you don’t have challenger safety, teams fall silent, alignment meetings become unproductively heated, and groupthink/echo chambers become the norm.

How can you make others feel comfortable being candid?

  • encourage half-baked ideas, no perfectionism here!
  • also encouraging “smaller” voices and helping people find their best method of communication (doc comments, talking in meetings, 1:1s, etc.)
  • weigh in last if you have a position of power; this allows space for others to share
  • reward and celebrate those who do try things that don’t necessarily stick
  • don’t tiptoe around bad news.
  • lead constructive discussions where disruptive ideas are positively reacted to

Closing thoughts

Everyone has a role in contributing to psychological safety and the culture of a team. The thing with culture is that the benefits are most effectively reaped when everyone understands and accepts their role in building and growing it. Leaders and managers can definitely nudge and sway their team members in the right direction as well as model and reward vulnerability. This framework can also be a good guide for watching a newcomer ramp up on the people-aspect of the team; hope it was enlightening in any sense!