Building psychological safety

A build-measure-learn approach, focused on teams

Richard McLean
7 min readMay 26, 2020

Why psychological safety is important

At Elsevier, we place strategic importance on having inclusive, engaged and agile teams. Therefore we need an inclusive environment for our teams to operate in where everyone is treated fairly and respectfully, has equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organization’s success.

For someone to contribute fully, they need to feel psychologically safe. Psychological safety is:

“A belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” Professor Amy Edmondson

In teams with a high level of psychological safety, there is a culture of inclusion. People feel safe to speak up, to ask questions, and to offer ideas.

Conversely, in a team with a low level of psychological safety, people do not contribute fully, because they are not comfortable speaking up and/or feel that there may be consequences if they question things.

Ways in which a lack of psychological safety can lead to people not contributing fully

Elsevier is a global business; we have nearly 8000 employees and offices worldwide. How do you increase the level of psychological safety in such a large distributed organisation? It was around this question that a small team of us came together 3 months ago.

A build-measure-learn approach, focused on teams

We wanted our approach to be grounded in people’s experience of psychological safety. It is in a team, as the unit of delivery, where the majority of most people’s perceptions of psychological safety are formed/experienced. We therefore decided to create an approach that is focused on teams.

We already knew — and had tested — how to measure psychological safety in a team, using a quick, simple team survey. And through experiments we had learnt how a team could use their results to learn about perceptions in the team and then use those learnings to agree on actions to build psychological safety. After a period of time, the team can then re-measure the level of psychological safety in the team, discuss and learn about what has or hasn’t worked and then continue on this cycle.

Our thinking is that if we can help teams across the organisation to follow this build-measure-learn feedback loop, we can help them to increase the level of psychological safety in their team, which at scale will increase the level of psychological safety across the organisation.

The build-measure-learn feedback loop is a core component of Lean Startup methodology

A simple process

We have designed a simple process which is available to teams on demand and will be driven by teams, supported by trained colleagues and a pool of specialist external facilitators.

Central to the process is a workshop with a trained facilitator where a team discusses the level of psychological safety in the team. The facilitated workshop is itself an intervention, an activity that can help to build psychological safety in the team. We think of the process as having four steps:

  1. A team/team leader signs up for a facilitator, who will measure the level of psychological safety in the team with an online survey
  2. The team review their survey results and learn about perceptions in the team.
  3. In a facilitated workshop, the team discuss those learnings and use their insights to select a small number of actions to build greater psychological safety
  4. The facilitator re-administers the survey a few months later to re-measure the level of psychological safety in the team, and in another workshop the team use those new results to learn more (e.g. what effect their actions had), and agree new actions to continue to build greater psychological safety.

There are exceptions to this simple process — for instance to cater for large work groups, or for teams that might report a low-level of psychological safety.

A comprehensive set of resources for everyone

As we learnt more about psychological safety ourselves in the project team, we gathered together and curated a comprehensive set of resources for everyone in Elsevier.

These include research showing the importance of psychological safety in teams and organisations, case studies from some of our early experiments and pilots with teams, visible sponsorship from our chief executive and global head of human resources, guidance on how to build psychological safety, and a behavioural guide with suggested actions for teams and team leaders​.

We’ve also made freely available to all staff Amy Edmondson’s book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the workplace for learning, innovation and growth.

A peer-to-peer program

Whilst our approach is focused on teams, it relies on having people outside the teams to facilitate their psychological safety workshops.

These workshops potentially deal with sensitive subjects — for example, they might involve people sharing feelings of exclusion. So it requires sensitive handling and is best done in a way that itself encourages psychological safety.

Having considered different options, we decided to go for a peer-to-peer, employee-to-employee program. This approach, which Google uses extensively, enables employees to develop and grow by working with others, and means that our teams will be working with peers with first-hand knowledge of the business.

We could go for this approach because we know that we’re fortunate to work with incredible colleagues who care deeply about inclusion and are committed to their work and their colleagues. We are also working with an outside organisation, who will provide specialist expertise that we will bring in to work with teams with a low level of psychological safety.

With very minimal publicity, we had over 80 passionate people volunteer to train to be a psychological safety facilitator from different functions/areas of the business and from different countries.

Supporting our facilitators

Passion alone isn’t enough: as a central project team, we want to provide our facilitators with the resources and support they need.

We’re using a number of different approaches to support our facilitators

The first step, to give them a foundation and support their development, was a three-hour, interactive small-group training session. The session covers:

  • Getting acquainted with the program aims and methodology
  • Understanding participants’ perspectives
  • An introduction to our detailed facilitator materials, which include templates and step-by-step guidance
  • Facilitation skills

We’ve trained our first set of facilitators. 96% said they would recommend the training session to others, and 92% said they would be able to apply what they learnt. As well as being positive for the participants, it was also an amazing experience for me:

A community of practice

We are now working with our facilitators to develop a community of practice to share learnings​. This will be an informal forum to share ideas and best practices, to network, and to support and challenge each other. We’re planning to provide the community with:

  • specialist coaching / webinars in psychological safety,
  • regular deep dive/repetition training content,
  • practice sessions, and
  • coaching to help new or developing facilitators.

And people in the community — a passionate group of people who are committed to learning more about psychological safety / team dynamics and helping teams — will of course contribute and shape how it develops. One of them has already set up a book club for facilitators to discuss together Amy Edmondson’s The Fearless Organization.

Posters to show the value of communities of practice from Tacit, a specialist consultancy.

Matching teams and facilitators

Given our aim of having an ‘on demand’ service for teams, and in order to operate efficiently and effectively at a global scale, we need a way with minimum/zero manual effort to match ‘demand’ from teams to be part of this program and have a facilitated workshop, with the ‘supply’ of our trained facilitators. Achieving this requires taking account of several factors:

  • we want it to be as easy as possible for a team/team leader to request a facilitator/workshop,
  • we want to ensure that facilitators are not called on to do more workshops than they’ve signed up for
  • we want to allow teams/facilitators to work in their own timezone and language of choice.

Having considered different options, one of our amazing colleagues is developing an ‘availability app’ to automatically match requests from a team/team leader for a workshop with the availability of suitable facilitators, taking into consideration location/time-zone and language.

Credit to the team

We’re almost ready to launch the program so that teams can sign up for a survey to measure their level of psychological safety and a facilitated workshop. Getting to this stage in just 3 months has been an amazing team effort. We’ve been a small, international, cross-functional team. We’ve all got full-time day jobs, and we took on this project on top of our normal work because we wanted to. We’ve tried to live by our own values: we’ve used some of our own tools and resources to build psychological safety in the project team, and we’ve measured our own level of psychological safety — we had the highest score we’ve ever seen in a team!

The project was driven by our amazing global head of inclusion and diversity Adam Travis and by Piper Hoffman, Attorney-Editor and Inclusion & Diversity project co-lead at RELX. I’ve been in awe of them and the other members of the central project team, including Joyce Hobbelink, KK (Katherine Kalavritinos), Carlotte Lines, and Johannes Menzel. I also want to recognise Avelino Dahotoy for his work on our ‘availability app’.



Richard McLean

Chief of staff @ElsevierConnect (Academic & Government group). Mainly writing about getting from A to B, teams, & digital product stuff. Personal account.