I’ve been providing business coaching services for seven years, and over the last year, I’ve found that the topic of psychological safety has been a priority for many of my clients.
One client in particular excels at creating psychological safety for his team but struggles to appreciate how crucial this is to effectiveness in leadership. I turned to an example of a leader who succeeds in spite of not utilizing the same skills or tactics as a “traditional” leader: Coach Ted Lasso.
Coach Lasso makes his teammates feel good through his lightheartedness and glass-half-full approach. He fosters safety and encourages authenticity.
An inspirational and effective example, he offers a version of leadership that breaks from the stereotype that effective leaders command the room and conversation with big energy; that they speak first and often with answers; that they are confident in their ideas being the best; and they care about winning more than anything.
Psychological safety, according to Amy Edmondson, The Harvard Business School professor who brought the term mainstream, is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”
Five key metrics that impact team performance were identified by a Google research team in its Project Aristotle study to understand team effectiveness: psychological safety; dependability; structure and clarity; meaning; and impact.
Psychological safety was identified as the solid foundation; the latter metrics were only valuable with its presence.
Edmondson’s research was used to measure a team’s psychological safety based on willingness to help; inclusion and diversity; attitude to risk and failure; and open conversation.
Here’s how Ted Lasso encourages his team with these traits in mind.
Willingness to Help
Individuals on psychologically safe teams feel comfortable asking for and offering help when appropriate. The idiom that a team is “only as strong as its weakest link” describes the interrelationship between a “win” and team members who might be struggling.
Aware of his own strengths and vulnerabilities, and recognizing that he’s not the aggressive type, Coach patiently shepherds retired player and current sports commentator Roy Kent back to the team as a coach. Ted is able to turn to Roy when he’s out of his depth in his understanding of the sport.
Inclusion and Diversity
Contributions and ideas are borne from team members who feel included.
From the outset, Coach Lasso demonstrates that he cares about everyone on the team and staff; his inclusive approach impacts how he manages up, too. After walking away from a nasty divorce with ownership of the team, Rebecca develops a plan to destroy the team. While she is initially put off by Ted’s cheeriness, his impact on the team culture eventually turns her around, not just because they are winning, but because of how he makes her feel. Despite being treated with contempt by the previous coach, Ted’s gesture of baking shortbread daily for Rebecca built trust, connection and a feeling of being seen.
Attitude to Risk and Failure
A safe learning environment, and growth within that environment, comes from team members who step out of their comfort zones and try new things. It doesn’t matter if they fail; it matters that they tried.
At the end of season one, the team has a tragic loss and gets demoted out of the Premier League. At one point, it seems inevitable that Ted will be fired. He does not, however, fall into fear of failure or play it safe. The team continues to experiment and trust that in working together, the tides will shift in their favor. They did.
Teams are more successful in addressing tough issues when team members feel they can speak freely. This eliminates the possibility that team members will simply agree with their leader rather than telling the truth.
While Ted sets a philosophy for the team, he does not want his opinion to be the only one that matters. By inviting the other coaches and players to openly disagree with him, his opinion sometimes evolves. Roy Kent pulls no punches when speaking to anyone, including Coach Lasso, with his “colorful” language. Rather than shutting Roy’s opinion down, Ted actively listens to him, which often releases Roy's pressure valve.
Leaders like Ted Lasso who champion psychological safety create a culture that inspires others to do the same. We all win when everyone believes that their version of leadership, built on their unique strengths, is welcome on the team.