4 min read

The difference between trust and psychological safety (and what happens if you get it wrong).

Dec 1, 2021 10:58:56 AM

Do you want a better team?

Of course you do.

Do you want the absolute best team on the planet?

Google did, and they spared no expense in finding out what it took to build one. They launched a multi-year, multi-discipline initiate called Project Aristotle, to find out what elements needed to be present in order to build the ‘perfect team’.

Their findings could not have been more clear or compelling. The number one factor – out of over 250 dimensions measured – was psychological safety.

Psychological safety is the belief a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking such as providing feedback, asking questions and owning mistakes. If you have it, feedback flows, improvements are made and performance is enhanced. If you lack it, feedback disappears, mistakes and in-fighting become the norm, and your team falls apart.

Believe it or not, one of the largest factors that I see preventing safety from developing in teams is…trust.

Understand that I’m not saying trust is a bad thing. What I am saying is that trust is often confused as safety, causing many leaders to fall short of building authentic safety in their teams. The image below helps to explain what I mean.


When there is a lack of security between two people Tension forms. Increase the security between these two people and that Tension is replaced with Trust. However, safety requires that same feeling of security to be felt across every single person on a team.

In fact, if you have trust, but have failed to scale that trust across the entire team, you will wind up with silos.

When someone feels unsafe, it feels bad. When someone experiences trust it feels good. Therefore, if I feel bad when I am in a team meeting, I’m going to want to feel good right after that meeting, influencing me to go to the one person I trust, to talk about the meeting.

Soon I start bringing all my issues to that person – even the ones I shouldn’t.

I see many leaders get tripped up by this. They work so hard on building trust with their followers, that if they fail to build safety, their follower no brings every single issue to them, stunting their own growth, and overwhelming the leader.

Your job as a leader is not to build trust WITH your followers...


Your job is to build trust BETWEEN your followers...


If this is resonating with you, here are the three steps you need to follow in order to be able to do it:

  • Understand the definition of Trust: Trust = (Vulnerability + Accountability) x Reliability. In order for trust to form, people need to have a reason to trust, they need to be a bit vulnerable. That vulnerability must be met by accountability – the other person must alter their behaviour so as not to have the first person’s vulnerability result in them experiencing any form of emotional harm. This must happen across all situations – hence reliability.
  • You must understand how each member of your team experiences vulnerability: Yellows, Green, Blues and Reds all experience ‘harm’ differently, meaning they all have different definitions on what it means to be vulnerable. You must know the definitions of each of your people.
  • You must coach accountability: Once you know what makes each person vulnerable, you must coach others who are not that same Behavioural Colour, to alter their judgements and decisions accordingly so as not to cause inadvertent harm.


This means if you have a Green, you are going to coach them to be more direct when they are in the presence of Reds. If you have a Blue, you are going to coach them to ‘go with the flow’ more than they are comfortable with when they are working with Yellows. You are going to coach increased focus into your Yellows and increased patience into your Reds.

They key of course being, you’re going to COACH this, not facilitate it. You need to be aware of and limit how often the trust you’ve built with an individual follower, influences them to over-involve you in situations you should be removed from. As a leader you don’t wish to abandon your team, nor do you want to be seen as ‘passing the buck’. However, YOU can very easily become the bottleneck on your own team if you are spending your days facilitating conversations that people should be able to have on their own.

Again - Trust minus Safety equals Silos.

Focus on building trust between those you lead, and you will soon see those silos begin to fall away.

Shane Wallace

Written by Shane Wallace

Shane is the Founder & CEO of CultureSmith Inc. He works with leaders and teams of high-growth organizations to help them overcome the behavioural and emotional issues that prevent their growth. Leveraging the CultureSmith Growth & Sustainability Framework, Shane helps demystify the the theories of Psychological Safety, Emotional Intelligence and Servant Leadership to turn companies into places people care about.