Coaching and the Creation of Psychological Safety
From recreational soccer to high school debate and on to the corporate workplace, most of us have had some sort of coaching in our lives. In the workplace, intentional, consistent coaching from leaders can significantly impact employee and team development, but what distinguishes a good coach from a great coach? One difference is that great coaches create a culture of psychological safety.
Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson, a pioneer of psychological safety research, defines the concept as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” This allows teams to be completely honest with one another in a safe space, creating the type of environment that solidifies trust, amplifies employee engagement, and propels innovation.
How can leaders create an environment that encourages risk-taking, making mistakes, and speaking up ? It takes time, faith, and commitment to creae an effective team. And though soccer coach Ted Lasso of Apple TV’s television series by the same name is a fictional character, he displays important lessons in psychological safety that translate to team coaching in the workplace.
Transparency between leaders and employees is a key underpinning of psychological safety. The freedom to tell the truth respectfully allows employees to express concerns, and in doing so, manage their ability to perform well. While sometimes uncomfortable, the expectation of candor removes barriers to trust on both sides and creates an authentic team dynamic.
Prior to starting at AFC Richmond, Ted Lasso was a college football coach. He had no experience coaching soccer and did not even know the rules of the game. Did he hide this from the players and pretend to be someone he wasn’t? He didn’t. Ted openly shared his lack of knowledge and was very open to learning from the strengths of the team. And when a team member comes to him with concerns about a colleague’s behavior, Ted responds, “Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I encourage you to continue to do so.” His consistent example of openness and vulnerability creates the space for the team to share their own challenges, thoughts, and opinions.
The daily grind of correspondence, meetings, and project deadlines often drains employees. And even the best leaders sometimes approach their role in a way that doesn’t work for every team member. It’s only when employees can share their challenges without fear of reproach that they can perform at their best. When leaders set an example of transparency and encourage the same from their team, interpersonal trust and psychological safety grow.
Like most meaningful innovations, the invention of the device you’re reading this blog on would not exist without a team that took a risk. Risk is inherent to progress; without it, stagnation takes root at all levels of the organization. Yet teams often shy away from risk for fear of failure and the negative consequences they believe they’ll face if that failure comes. Good ideas stay silently in the idea phase, and employees are frustrated at what could have been. The antidote? Leaders who show and encourage risk-taking.
One example of a risk Ted Lasso takes for his team is when he decides to change the team's formation without notice. The team is struggling to score goals, and Ted decides at halftime to switch to a more unconventional formation the team has never practiced.
This is a big risk because it could potentially throw the team off and make them even more vulnerable to their opponents. However, Ted believes that it's worth trying something new to win the game, which is the ultimate outcome of this risk. His players are initially skeptical, but they trust Ted and his leadership.
When a leader is willing to take calculated risks to improve team performance, even if it means deviating from the norm or potentially failing, it creates the psychological safety the team needs to take risks without fear.
Collaboration is the lifeblood of many teams, and it’s critical for idea generation and collective problem-solving. But many leaders direct the team instead of inviting them to actively participate in decision-making. This can leave employees discouraged and disengaged. Psychological safety sufferes when there is no space to voice opinions or meaningfully contribute to the team’s directions.
Ted is a coach who consistently collaborates with his team. Instead of telling the team what their new motto will be, he asks each player for their input. In another instance, Ted struggles to develop a game plan for an upcoming match. He holds a team meeting and asks players for their thoughts on the best approach for the game.
In both situations, Ted listens to the team’s suggestions and incorporates them into the final decision. Overall, he values his team’s input and seeks their opinions on various topics.
Coaches who consistently invite team members to provide input can better understand their employees’ needs and motivations, creating a positive team climate where team members feel heard. In doing so, a leader is creating a culture of continuous improvement and foster a sense of ownership and accountability among team members.
Mistakes happen. They may not feel good to us when they do, but mistakes are normal. How leaders react to mistakes significantly impacts the psychological safety of the team. Embracing imperfection and using mistakes as development opportunities rather than weapons for punishment is a hallmark of all great coaches.
Ted understands that mistakes are a natural part of the learning process and is forgiving when others make them. When star player Roy Kent misses a crucial penalty kick during a game, he feels responsible for the loss and is extremely hard on himself. Ted encouragesRoy to focus on the things he did well in the game rather than dwelling on the mistake. He also reminds Roy that mistakes are a natural part of the game and that he will have other opportunities to redeem himself.
Ted’s inexperience with the sport of soccer also leads him to make several coaching mistakes himself. By taking accountability for these mistakes and committing to the team to do better, he builds trust and sets a healthy example for handling missteps.
When coaches set the expectation that mistakes are inevitable but can ultimately help the team learn, they create the psychological safety the team needs to learn from the mistakes they make rather than be held back by them.
Coaching is rarely easy, and even high-performing teams don’t always win. As Ted Lasso would tell you, great coaching is not just about the wins or the losses. It’s about how you create a psychologically safe environment for your team that’s grounded in transparency, collaboration, and the freedom to challenge the status quo.
In any coach’s playbook, that type of culture is always a win.