I spend a lot of my time helping legal teams build resilience. It’s an important intersection because teams face many complex and ambiguous challenges that have huge business consequences that are rarely solved with simple answers. In order to create a more resilient team, lawyers and leaders need to develop psychological safety.  Psychological safety is the belief that you can be yourself, take good risks, ask questions, share partially formed ideas, raise problems, and respectfully disagree within your team without worry of being talked about, embarrassed, singled out, penalized, or thought less of.

Here’s an example of what low psychological safety sounds like. I recently co-taught a workshop to a group of law firm partners about the intersection of resilience and innovation. I had just finished teaching my segment about psychological safety and I began to segue into the next part of the workshop. For some reason my colleague and I kept referencing ROI without defining it, so we paused to make sure the group was tracking. I asked, “Is everyone familiar with the term ROI?” One person, who I’ll call Julie, raised her hand and admitted that she didn’t know what we meant. We explained that for our purposes, ROI meant Return on Investment. No big deal, and on we went with our talk. Moments later, another partner in the back of the room, who I’ll call Maria, interrupted us and said in a loud voice, “I want to know who the person was who didn’t know what ROI meant!” I was stunned, everyone became silent and Julie was some combination of pissed off and embarrassed.

What are the odds that Julie will ever want to work with Maria? Luckily, they are peers with separate law practices but imagine for a moment that Julie is Maria’s associate. How might Julie feel each day at work, knowing that unless she is basically perfect, at any moment she could be publicly embarrassed for admitting she doesn’t know something?

Why Psychological Safety is Important

Psychological safety is important because it is the entry point for belonging and thus helps to unlock not only well-being and resilience but also the benefits that diversity and inclusion bring to your teams and organizations. It also helps to frame the conversation about failure.

Psychological safety is the entry point to belonging. Belonging is the desire to feel connected to others, to feel cared about and cared for by others, and to be part of groups that are important and matter to you. Belonging is one of our core psychological needs and it’s fundamental to human motivation, well-being, and happiness. In fact, one study of more than 6,200 lawyers found that belonging was one of the strongest correlates of well-being in law.

When you feel like you belong on your legal team and in your organization, you are less likely to burn out and leave the organization and you display stronger organizational commitment and job performance. Conversely, when your sense of belonging is frustrated, you are more likely to be depressed, physically, and emotionally exhausted, stressed, and have a higher turnover intention. In addition, psychological safety unlocks the benefits that diversity and inclusion bring to teams and organizations – everyone feels included and willing to contribute their knowledge and expertise, which is critical in a profession where knowledge and expertise are what you sell.

Psychological safety frames the conversation about failure. Lawyers can be exceedingly hard on themselves when things don’t go right; yet, failure is a source of valuable data. Learning from failure can only happen when there is a foundation of psychological safety to dig into the lessons that failure provides. There are also different types of failure. It’s one thing to fail by applying the wrong rule of law or missing a filing deadline; it’s quite another to fail trying to innovate or try a new strategy. Matt Wilson, an Associate General Counsel at Uber, recently described how important it is for his team to understand that it’s OK to fail. According to Matt, as long as the team is making the right arguments, has contingencies in place, develops the right strategy, and puts its best foot forward, he recognizes that things aren’t always going to go right and that adaptability is central to resilience.  What makes that conversation work, though, is psychological safety.

How You Develop It

Legal leaders play a critical role in developing psychological safety within their teams, but all team members must do their part.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Send LOTS of “you matter” cues. Your brain is wired to look for indicators that you belong. Simple things like calling people by name, acknowledging when someone has entered the room or joined a Zoom conference, closing your laptop lid and listening, and making eye contact are a few examples. These cues matter even more and are received more sensitively to new people on your team.
  • Solicit input, feedback, and questions from everyone. You might have to prime the discussion and ask each person to give a pro and a con for a strategy.
  • Limit side conversations and gossip
  • Explain the reasoning behind your decision
  • Recap what has been said to confirm everyone is on the same page
  • Model vulnerability and fallibility – as a leader, it’s important to talk about times when something didn’t go right for you and the lessons you learned
  • Finger-pointing, blame and automatic assumptions are not allowed and are shut down
  • Say thank you…a lot. Thank you is more than just an expression of gratitude. It also generates safety, connection, and motivation. Don’t forget to encourage team members to say thank you to each other.

In addition, three legal leaders I talked to recently are also doing the following to promote psychological safety:

  • Holding weekly no-business touch base calls for 15 minutes
  • Reinforcing their “open-door” policy so that team members know they are free to discuss anything
  • Providing high transparency when giving updates
  • Letting team members know about all of the organizational resources that are available
  • Communicating a lot – there is no such thing as too much communication these days
  • Focusing on positives and wins

Psychological safety is the foundation of resilient teams and unlocks belonging, trust, inclusion, and well-being in your legal organization. You can’t afford to be without this valuable skill.

Paula wishes to thank Mary Shen O’Carroll, Director of Legal Operations at Google, Nakia Humphrey, Director of Professional Development at Perkins Coie LLP and Virginia G. Essandoh, Chief Diversity Officer at Ballard Spahr for their time and insights. 


Want to know more? Download my free “Is It Stress or Is It Burnout” strategy guide here. You can also learn about our speaking and training programs here.