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How to Build Psychological Safety Without Getting in Your Own Way

Updated: May 28

Building psychological safety – that's a hot button issue in nonprofits lately, eh? We all look to do it, but many of us consistently fail.

Here is why: White supremacy work characteristics and building psychological safety are fundamentally at odds. While white supremacy promotes hierarchy, exclusivity, competition, rigidity, and power hoarding, building psychological safety emphasizes equality, inclusivity, collaboration, flexibility, and empathetic leadership.

To build psychological safety, you must address link between white supremacy and the nonprofit sector. You must investigate the systemic and structural issues that perpetuate inequity in and out of your organization. Gaps in leadership, funding, program design, hiring practices, organizational culture, and community involvement should all be explored. Addressing these problems will require a concentrated effort to align your organization with the values of community-centric fundraising. However, while these are principles that many in the nonprofit sector advocate for in theory, they are often not put into practice, leading to a lack of psychological safety time and time again for those not in power at organizations.

Psychological safety is a critical component of a healthy and effective culture. It lays the groundwork for individuals and teams to bloom. It's a vital investment in the human aspect of organizations, reflecting a commitment to values, empathy, and shared success. And what better way to truly adopt community-centric values than by involving your team in shaping strategies? It's about co-creating a path for your organization to forge.

When we make space for everyone, something incredible happens; our values shine brighter, our team gets tighter, and our impact? Well, it skyrockets.

We must create an environment where team members feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, ideas, and even concerns without fearing judgment; where everyone's voice is not just heard but valued.

Here is how I do it:

Step 1: Set Goals and Expectations

Define the Rules of Engagement

Setting rules of engagement is a thoughtful and deliberate process that lays the groundwork for how the team will interact, communicate, collaborate, and grow. By involving all team members in defining the rules, we create a sense of ownership and commitment. Everyone has a stake in the process and their voices are valued from the very beginning. The rules can be anything from “hold space for other people to speak” to “we need a bathroom break every hour” - it is all up to your group!

Define Goals and Process

By involving everyone in values-aligned goal setting, we ensure goals reflect our collective aspirations. Clearly articulating the goals and processes ensures that everyone understands the direction and expectations of the specific strategy you are forming – from the strategic plan to your budget or fundraising plan.

Provide Questions and Information in Advance

Share the agenda, questions, and necessary information with participants before the process begins; your neurodiverse colleagues will appreciate it. Sharing all pertinent information helps participants come prepared to meaningfully contribute. Also, participants can steel themselves if needed, and may choose to provide their feedback in writing.

Step 2: Foster Open Communication

Build Trust

Trust is the foundation of psychological safety, and open communication is the cornerstone of trust. Creating an environment where team members feel safe to express their opinions without fear of criticism or ridicule is thus vital. Trust between your group members enables them to take risks, share ideas, and engage in constructive dialogue. Ask your team what they would like in order to feel psychologically safe throughout this process and name any power imbalances or dynamics at play. Your team may opt for anonymous surveys, consultant support, group listening sessions, one-on-one interviews, or more.

Promote Transparency

By ensuring that all decisions and discussions take place within the group, transparency is maintained. Everyone has access to the same information, and there are no hidden agendas or backdoor conversations. This transparency builds trust, as team members know that they are fully informed and included in all aspects of the decision-making process. No one is blindsided or excluded.

Step 3: Lead with Vulnerability

Embracing Vulnerability

True leadership is about showcasing challenges and learnings. By sharing our vulnerabilities, we normalize openness and engage in collaborative problem-solving.

I personally try to model this in as many situations as possible, especially when team members make mistakes. I tell them of times when I sent an email to thousands of people that said “asses” and not “assess” (yes, someone noticed). By sharing our own missteps, questions, or concerns, we give space for others to do so as well, promoting a culture of acceptance and learning. We demonstrate we are not perfect, we all make mistakes, and we do our best work together, without judgement. It's about creating a space where everyone feels safe to be themselves.

Step 4: Encourage Curiosity and Active Listening

Promote Questions and Challenge Ideas

Set a significant amount of time aside for participants to ask questions and engage each other in discussion to allow for curiosity and continuous learning. Recognize the value of exploration and encourage team members to seek deeper understanding, challenge assumptions, and deeply discuss to ensure we select the best path forward.

Practice Active Listening

Active listening involves giving full attention, maintaining eye contact, and showing empathy. It's more than just hearing; it's about understanding and validating the speaker's thoughts and feelings. This practice promotes deeper connections and trust within the team.

Explore The Options

Acknowledging and valuing diverse perspectives enriches discussions and leads to more well-rounded solutions. By leveraging your team’s strengths and promoting cultural awareness, a more inclusive and respectful environment is created. Ensure you make space to discuss: why do we do it this way? Does this align with our values and current culture? Can we scrap it? Can we make it better? Who is not included in this process and why?

Step 5: The Group in Decision-Making

Collaborate on Decision-Making

Ensuring that all voices are heard in gathering feedback creates a sense of belonging and validation. It recognizes the unique value of your community and creates a culture where everyone feels empowered to contribute.

However, many organizations stop at listening and do not collaborate on decision making, which is a huge mistake. Collaboration is key. By presenting findings and engaging the team in decision-making, we reinforce ownership in shaping and implementing the strategy. We can then work together on actualizing the strategy, monitoring progress, and celebrating milestones.

Step 6: Embrace Mistakes as Learning Opportunities

Shift Perception of Failure

By viewing mistakes as opportunities for learning rather than failures, you set the team up for growth. This mindset encourages continuous improvement, resilience, and adaptability. By embracing imperfection and learning from mistakes, we challenge white supremacy culture that often demands perfection and conformity. We promote a more inclusive and compassionate approach that encourages experimentation, innovation, and risk-taking.

Create a No-Blame Culture

A no-blame culture encourages team members to take risks and try new approaches without fear of punishment or some form of retribution; something that is too common in our sector. This culture supports risk-taking, recognizes that mistakes are a natural part of growth, and encourages team members to stretch beyond their comfort zones.

By creating a safe space where mistakes are not blamed on individuals, trust is built within the team. Team members feel supported and are more eager to get each other’s opinion on bettering their strategies or initiatives. As a bonus, team members will often reach out to you as their leader more quickly when they discover they have made a mistake, instead of trying to hide it.

Reflect on Failures as a Team

Reflecting on failures as a team encourages peer-support and collective learning. It turns challenges into opportunities for shared insights and improvements. This helps the team bond, develop resilience, learn to bounce back from setbacks, and adapt to new challenges.

In the end, building psychological safety is about more than just creating a comfortable work environment; it's about nurturing a culture that reflects our deepest values and aspirations. However, the journey towards psychological safety is not a one-time effort; it's an ongoing commitment to your team. With these six steps, you are ready to roll up your sleeves and work toward a more connected, creative, and empowered team.

The steps outlined here are not just theoretical concepts; they are actionable strategies that I've personally implemented to transform even the most neglected teams. From setting clear goals and expectations to fostering open communication, leading with vulnerability, encouraging curiosity, involving the group in decision-making, and embracing mistakes as learning opportunities, each step is deliberately crafted to build trust, inclusivity, and engagement.

Building psychological safety is a fundamental necessity for thriving, innovative, and inclusive organizations. By creating an environment where everyone feels valued, heard, and empowered to contribute their best, we challenge white supremacy hierarchies, power hoarding, and perfectionism.


By Maria Rio, for SVA. Maria has 10+ years of experience in nonprofit project/people management and is a consultant for Further Together.

This piece is a deep dive into one aspect of our values-based approach and our belief in engaging your community during the development of a strategy. For more information on SVA’s Approach, click here.


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