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Let’s begin with some basics.

Your people (team or division members, staff, associates etc.) must trust each other and YOU to be effective and successful.

High performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety, the belief that you won’t be punished for making a mistake.

When people feel psychologically safe they will take risks, speak their mind, are creative and stick their neck out because they trust it won’t be cut off. These are the types of behaviors that lead to market breakthroughs.

Because of our innate fight-or-flight response to survival, people respond negatively, contract and defend in uncertain, interdependent environments. Our brains process provocation by a boss, competitiveness by a co-worker or dismissiveness by a subordinate as a life-or-death threat. An alarm bell goes off in our brains and it literally shuts down. Fight-or-flight response handicaps the strategic, creative, innovative thinking needed in today’s workplace.

People need to feel and experience positive emotions in order to succeed.   Positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence and inspiration help us to solve complex problems and foster cooperative relationships. We are more open and expansive, calm and centered; we are more resilient, motivated, inspired, persistent and self-determining when we feel safe. Humor, solution-finding and divergent, creative thinking increases with trust that we are protected and cared for, that we are valued and nurtured to be and do our best.

When the workplace feels challenging but not threatening, teams succeed where others have failed. Oxytocin levels in our brains rise, which instills feelings of joy and contentment that are enduring and long lasting.

In a fast-paced, highly demanding environment, success hinges on people’s ability to take risks and be vulnerable in front of their peers. This has been documented and shared by Google (see What Makes a Stellar Team . . . what this means to you)

We can duplicate Google’s success and increase psychological safety on our own team(s) by implementing common-sense fundamentals of business management or positive human relations. 


#1 Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary.

Most people hate to lose. If they feel threatened with a loss of power, prestige, money or security, they become competitive, critical and defensive.

True success is a win-win outcome, where everyone works together in the spirit of mutual support and cooperation.

Keep it simple. Ask, “How can we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?” Then, listen, listen and keep listening.


#2 Speak human to human.

Meet people’s universal needs. Be genuinely curious.  Show people consideration and respect. Honor their strengths, gifts, abilities and areas of expertise. Allow them to experience a sense of autonomy.

Recognizing and meeting these deep human needs elicits trust and promotes positive conversations and interactions.

Remind your teammates and colleagues that even in the most contentious negotiations, everyone wants to walk away feeling heard, understood and happy.

Engage in group facilitations with guided one-on-one interactions between people of differing views. Engage in group-bonding discussions where sameness is reinforced and experienced on a deeper emotional level.

Create a “Just Like Me” experiences where everyone involved to come to a deeper knowing that:

  • This person has beliefs, perspectives, and opinions, just like me.
  • This person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like me.
  • This person has friends, family, and perhaps children who love them, just like me.
  • This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me.
  • This person wishes for peace, joy, and happiness, just like me.


#3 Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves.

Consider in advance how your audience will react to your message. This helps to ensure people will hear what you say as an invitation to work together and not as a personal attack regarding the quality of their work.

     Prepare in advance. Gather concrete evidence to counter defensiveness when discussing hot-button issues. Consider the possible objections to the direction or position you are advocating, and how you would respond to those objections.

     Pretend that you are on the outside looking in and consider the weaknesses in your position, and ask yourself:

  • What are the main points I’d like to raise?
  • What are three ways listeners could respond?
  • How could I respond to each of these scenarios?


#4 Replace blame with curiosity.

Blame and criticism only escalate conflict. People become defensive and disengage. If your team members, division or colleagues close off and are not fully present, reaching mutually advantageous decisions is not possible.

Choose to have a learner’s mind, one that is open to all possibilities and is willing to learn. If you know that you are right, there is no possibility for learning and growth. Acknowledge that you don’t have all the facts and that any solution that serves the highest good of what you and everyone else wants to accomplish is a win-win.

Having a learner’s mind is a learned behavior and tasks persistence, determination and practice.

Here’s an example of how to confront problematic behavior in a new way, by stating the problem or what you have been observing in factual, neutral language.

“During the past two months, there’s been a noticeable drop in participation during meetings and progress appears to be slowing on your project.”

Engage everyone in an exploration.

     “I imagine there are multiple factors at play. Perhaps we could uncover what they are together? How does that sound?”

Ask for solutions using open-ended questions stating with ‘what’ and ‘how’.

My experience as a coach has shown me over and over again that the people who have created problems hold the keys to solving those problems; and, that when they come up with their own workable solutions, there is a much greater probability for buy in and follow through.

Since a positive outcome depends on your people’s input and buy-in, ask them direct and open questions like:

  • “What do you think needs to happen here?”
  • “What would be your ideal scenario?”
  • “How could I support you?”


#5 Ask for feedback on delivery.

Asking for feedback on how you delivered your message is a wonderful way to harmonize difficult conversations. It disarms animosity and dissention and allows for open engagement  . . . and helps you to be a better leader.

Your blind spots in communicating and relations are exposed so you can do a better job next time. Don’t take comments personally. Welcome them with gratitude and respect and thank each participant who shares with genuine humility.

This models fallibility. You are a living example of not being perfect (which, of course, applies to everyone) and being okay to make mistakes, own them and learn from the experience . . . and this makes you more trustworthy in the eyes of others.

Here are some sample questions that you can ask:

  • “What worked and what didn’t work in my delivery?”
  • “How did it feel to hear this message?”
  • “How could I have presented it more effectively?”

        When we have difficult conversations using this collaborative format, when we drop being superior or inferior, when we are respectfully humble and vulnerable and open to all possibilities to resolve a problem that benefits us all, magic happens.

        It’s about presenting reasonable evidence so that the recipients of your message want to hear more. It’s about being eager to discuss challenges so that solutions are possible.


#6 Measure psychological safety.

Don’t guess or assume, ask.

Periodically ask your people how safe they feel and what you can do to enhance their feelings of safety. Routinely take anonymous surveys on psychological safety and other team dynamics.

Ask questions like:

“How confident are you that you won’t receive retaliation or criticism if you admit an error or make a mistake?”

“On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest:

  • How easy is it to discuss difficult issues or problem?
  • How easy is it to ask other team members for help?
  • How easy is it to offer suggestions or solutions to problems, issues or concerns?
  • How well is your input received?
  • How valued or respected do you feel for you contributions?
  • How much do you feel accepted and a part of the team?”

“What needs to change to improve this situation? What’s one positive step that could be take or implemented now?”


Wrapping it Up.

If you create this sense of psychological safety, you can expect to see higher levels of engagement, increased motivation to tackle difficult problems, more learning and development opportunities, and better performance.

People who feel respected, heard and understood, people who feel that their input counts and can make a real difference, people who feel valued and not judged, people who are not afraid to make mistakes, discuss them and collaborate with others to resolve, rectify or fix the problem, can help you increase workplace harmony, productivity and prosperity; and, this creates a cultural climate that draws the best and brightest who fit who you are and what you do to your organization.

The most successful people of all ages have viewed mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow. They have been industrious, genuinely curious and grateful to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before them.

This is not about encouraging sloppy work, slovenly behavior or a lackadaisical attitude. It’s about creating a work environment or community that is supportive, nurturing and encourages creativity, innovation, productivity and positive growth.






Arlene Cohen Miller   +1 720.936.2634

Martindale Hubbell AV Rating : "An AV Rating shows that a lawyer has reached the height of professional excellence.He or she has usually practiced law for many years, and is recognized for the highest levels of skill and integrity."

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