Whether team members feel psychologically safe has a strong impact on the team’s performance, it forms the basis for innovation, motivation, commitment, and creativity.

Part 1: Trust

What is trust?

Throughout our lives, we have all experienced trust and distrust in one form or another, and this begins in the early days of childhood. There is therefore a lot of everyday knowledge about what trust actually means and is shaped by our own personal experiences, i.e. experiences in which trust given by us was confirmed or not confirmed. To better understand psychological safety, it is helpful to delve deeper into the concept of trust. Trust is all about behavioral safety. When you trust, you expect others to behave a certain way. This expectation is learned over time, either by experiencing a person’s behavior in previous interactions or independently of the person through substitutes (e.g., trust in professions, institutions, departmental origins).

From a social science perspective, trust makes our lives easier by reducing social complexity. By trusting, we anticipate the future. We place expectations on our counterpart – and this can also be ourselves – on how the person should behave in the future. We have a lot of social relationships. Trust allows us not to have to review behavior in every relationship and situation. We assume that based on our experience, the probability of an occurring behavior is very high. Trust is, like control, a form of risk reduction.

Trust makes our lives easier! It is an effective form of reducing social complexity. [Luhmann, 1989]

When we are confronted with the unknown – which is increasingly happening in a dynamic environment – we initially react with uncertainty or fear. In such a situation, we can give trust or distrust. In the event of mistrust, we check at close intervals whether the expected behavior has occurred. In the case of trust, we assume the occurrence of behavior. The act of trust promotes openness and cooperation in a relationship. Trust is an evolutionary mechanism to relieve us cognitively. We no longer must put every relationship to the test. Trust simplifies the complexity of social relationships without one’s own risk becoming too great.

Trust within teams means that someone shows vulnerability in the belief that their team members will not use it against them by criticizing him/her or dropping him/her. When team members stand by him in difficult times, trust grows. High-performing teams see building trust as a shared responsibility, rather than leaving it up to everyone individually. Mutual trust in teams is the shared belief that team members will fulfill their roles and protect the interests of their teammates.

In high-performing teams, there are three dimensions of trust:

  • Basic trust as a basis for being able to work together,

  • Healthy culture of debate be able to process tensions and different points of view,

  • Complete openness showing vulnerability within the team.

The building blocks of trust

Trust is a phenomenon that cannot be measured directly. Trust and mistrust arise from several different factors and over time in different situations. In sociology, trust (according to Luhmann) is broken down into three different components: competence, integrity, and benevolence.

  • In the absence of competence expectations, I am unsure whether the other team members have the necessary skills and abilities to master their tasks competently.
  • With a low expectation of integrity, I doubt the credibility, i.e. that the other team member behaves according to his postulated ideals and values.
  • In the absence of benelovence, I am unsure whether my counterpart is well-disposed and positively oriented towards me and does not only have his self-interest in mind.

If I lack the expectation that my counterpart is competent, integer, and benevolent, I find myself in a “chaotic, unpredictable environment”. And such an environment produces fear, because in chaos one cannot trust.

Trust cannot be demanded.

Trust builds up step by step over time. Before taking bigger risks, one person starts small and gives the other person more and more autonomy over time, leading to increased risk. The person checks whether the risk is justified (or whether the risk occurs), if all goes well, trust is built. Trust building is thus a longer-lasting permanent process, in a field of interaction between those affected. This takes time in which many, many experiences of trusting moments must be collected. However, confidence-building is very fragile. If expectations are not met and trust is not justified, it can quickly call everything into question. Even through small setbacks. Those who abuse trust put their reputation at risk and both sides have a trust problem.

With reciprocity, it is easier to build trust. This means that if someone takes a risk, they want the other side to take a risk as well. However, this does not have to be the same risk, neither in terms of time nor value. To build a psychologically safe environment in interactions, trust is built by explicitly or implicitly conforming to agreed rules and norms (e.g., what is said in space stays in space) and showing personal and emotional openness. Studies show that disclosing emotional and personal information to others can promote closeness and trust.

In English-speaking countries, this is referred to as “vulnerability”, the translation “vulnerability” is unfortunately negatively influenced in German. Only when I meet my counterpart with personal and emotional openness do I invite him or her to return this trust. Vulnerability arises when someone is exposed to risks or emotional pressures, such as fear or uncertainty.

Trust and vulnerability build on each other in an endless loop, meaning that people only show vulnerability when they trust, and the more they trust, the more vulnerability they can show. Over time and through mutual opening on a personal and emotional level, a trusting relationship is built. With the positive reinforcement loop, teams gain psychological confidence that allows them to take risks, learn better, and achieve higher goals.

What is personal and emotional openness?

Access to your emotions.

To show your vulnerability, you need to understand your feelings and not deny or hide them. In the corporate world, for most, this is easier said than done, because we’ve forgotten how to talk openly about our feelings at work. This is especially true for feelings that we interpret as negative. When we try to avoid injury, we often feel powerless or vulnerable. Like all emotions, this type of emotion needs a place to be expressed, and it is not possible to selectively numb emotions. But be aware that sometimes we express our feelings through surrogate emotions for an underlying cause (e.g., showing anger instead of accepting that the causative sensation is fear or overwhelm). The first step to showing vulnerability is to curiously observe what feelings and needs emerge within you.

Be authentic.

Vulnerability is about being authentic wherever you are. It is therefore the willingness to be true to oneself and to be truly seen by others. Showing vulnerability in your behavior involves acknowledging mistakes, talking about your needs and feelings, and accepting feedback.

Have self-compassion.

When faced with challenging situations, people often tend to be overly critical of their vulnerability. However, studies show that other people are more likely to view the display of vulnerability positively. This false perception of one’s own weak points is called the Beautiful Chaos effect. People with self-compassion see difficulties in their circumstances as inevitable and face such situations without exaggeration. Instead, they are kind to themselves.

In summary, we can say:

Trust is an elementary component for working together in teams. If trust is complemented by empathy, error culture, and diversity, psychological security can be created in the team that promotes commitment, performance, learning and innovation.