The Neuroscience of Psychological Safety


Psychological safety, the bedrock of thriving team environments, is deeply intertwined with our neurological responses. It refers to the shared belief that one can express oneself without fear of negative consequences. 

Understanding these neurological mechanisms can empower leaders to create environments that foster innovation, collaboration, and well-being. 

Below we explore some interesting facts about psychological safety and neuroscience, and how leaders can leverage this information.

1. The brain treats social threats like physical pain

The Science: Neuroscience research has shown that the brain processes social threats—such as exclusion, embarrassment, or criticism—in similar ways to physical pain, activating regions like the anterior cingulate cortex.

This activation can lead to decreased employee engagement and productivity as individuals become more focused on self-protection than on collaborative and creative efforts.

Leadership Tip: To mitigate this, leaders can create a culture of inclusion where diverse perspectives are actively sought and valued. For instance, during meetings, ensure that each team member has the opportunity to speak and contribute. Highlighting the importance of every opinion can help minimize perceived social threats.

2. Oxytocin enhances trust and collaboration

The Science: Oxytocin, often referred to as the "trust hormone," plays a crucial role in forming social bonds and enhancing feelings of trust and cooperation. When this is absent, teams tend to experience competition rather than collaborative team dynamics.

Leadership Tip: You’ll want to encourage team-building activities and moments of shared success to naturally boost oxytocin levels among team members, such as volunteer work or team retreats focused on non-work-related challenges and activities. These shared experiences can naturally boost oxytocin levels, fostering a sense of unity and trust.

3. The prefrontal cortex wants open communication

The Science: The prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making, problem-solving, and moderating social behavior, functions optimally in environments perceived as safe and supportive. 

This is a key obstacle when psychological safety is lacking – as when employees feel under threat, their brain's focus shifts towards survival mechanisms, impairing their ability to make reasoned decisions and solve complex problems.

Leadership Tip: Promote open communication and transparency within the team. This reduces uncertainty—a known trigger for the brain's threat response—allowing the prefrontal cortex to focus on higher-order tasks. For example, a monthly "open book" meeting where leaders discuss the state of the business and future directions can help reduce uncertainty and engage the prefrontal cortex in positive ways.

4. Dopamine drives motivation and reward

The Science: Dopamine is not just about pleasure; it's also key to motivation, influencing our drive to seek out and anticipate rewards. Recognition and positive feedback can increase dopamine levels, enhancing motivation. 

Leadership Tip: Regularly acknowledge and celebrate achievements, both big and small.  This could range from a simple shout-out in a team meeting to more formal awards for significant contributions. Such recognition not only boosts dopamine levels but also reinforces the behaviors you want to see in your team.

5. Neuroplasticity supports Learning and Adaptation

The Science: Neuroplasticity allows the brain to adapt and learn from new experiences. A culture that punishes mistakes stifles this adaptability, leading to a risk-averse environment that hampers innovation and growth.

Leadership Tip: Foster a culture where mistakes are openly discussed and learned from, rather than punished. Create a "fail-forward" initiative where teams are encouraged to share lessons from projects that didn't go as planned. This could be a regular part of team meetings where discussing what was learned from setbacks is as valued as celebrating successes.

6. Chronic Stress Impairs Cognitive Function

The Science: Prolonged exposure to stress can impair cognitive functions, such as memory, attention, and decision-making. Employees may find it harder to concentrate, recall important information, or complete tasks efficiently. Research also shows high-stress environments lead to higher likelihood of errors and lower engagement over time.

Leadership Tip: Leaders play a crucial role in mitigating the effects of high stress. Separate to managing workload, they can shape workplace attitudes towards stress, which often starts through leadership behaviours and is cascaded down through the organisation.  For example, encouraging employees to take regular breaks, giving them ownership over work, and communicating that it is acceptable to take time off or ‘unplug’, can all be meaningful steps towards reducing the experience of stress on a daily basis.  

Checklist for leaders

  1. Open communication:
    • Encourage sharing challenges and learning experiences to model vulnerability
    • Regular feedback sessions can ensure everyone feels heard and valued
  2. Normalize mistakes
    • Highlight failures as growth opportunities
    • Celebrate the learning journey as much as the successes.
  3. Be transparent
    • Share critical information to reduce uncertainty
    • Involve team members in decisions to foster a sense of ownership.
  4. Invest in social bonds
    • Facilitate personal connections through team activities
    • Make time to build empathy and understanding within the group

We hope that integrating some of these insights into leadership practices will help you create a more psychologically safe environment that not only nurtures the well-being of your teams but also maximizes their potential for creativity, innovation, and performance.

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