How Psychological Safety Creates Cohesion: A Leader’s Guide

By Maj. Kimberly Brutsche and Capt. Tiarra McDaniel, Simon Center for the Professional Military EthicApril 27, 2021

Leaders Play Critical Role
Leaders play a critical role in ensuring Soldiers feel safe to speak up and take action without fear of repercussion or retaliation. Creating a culture of trust builds unit cohesion and creates strong teams. (Photo Credit: (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Thomas Calvert)) VIEW ORIGINAL

As Soldiers we learn personal courage means to face physical or moral fear, danger, and adversity. This is an Army Value for a reason, as fear is powerful enough to determine the decisions we make. Personal courage is frequently correlated to fearless acts of great honor on the battlefield, but seldomly to actions in garrison. If these fearless actions are carried out on the battlefield without hesitation, how do we channel that same energy into our daily lives and our organizations? An energy where we feel the cohesion that allows us to be brave enough to overcome personal fears and actively work for the well-being of our teammates? To create the psychological safety necessary for Soldiers to be courageous daily, leaders must create an inclusive culture built on trust. Psychological safety is a belief that an individual can speak up or take action without feeling they are risking rejection, punishment, or ostracization. However, for organizations to achieve psychological safety, they must identify and address its antithesis, psychological danger.

Psychological danger encompasses fear of negative repercussions or exclusion. If individuals feel they are not ‘safe’ enough to be honest, they will feel disconnected from their team thus fracturing unit cohesion. We see this quite often with the hesitancy to seek help through many of the Army’s support programs. But if these programs exist to help, what do Soldiers fear they are risking?

Here are some examples of how fears manifest into negative self-talk and psychological danger:

• “I do not want to talk to the SHARP VA because I am scared I will get in trouble for doing something I was not supposed to be doing.”

• “If I enroll in ASAP I will be labeled a drunk or addict.”

• “If I tell someone I have suicidal ideations then they will see me as fragile and want to tiptoe around me.”

• “If I go to EO about some racist or extremist interactions then I will be singled out as a snitch and a troublemaker.”

What these thoughts have in common are the fears that being vulnerable puts us at risk of future exclusion, based on the assumed reactions of our leaders and peers. It is dangerous for leaders to perpetuate this mindset in our military culture because we then leave our Soldiers to fight alone, just as if we left them on the battlefield. Soldiers and leaders at all levels must invalidate these assumptions and remove these stigmatic fears, as everyone has a part in producing psychologically safe environments. So, what does psychological safety look like at each echelon?

Beginning at the individual level, self-awareness and accepting vulnerability play a huge role. Share how you like to communicate and what motivates you to work at your best. Embrace honest mistakes as learning opportunities and do not take criticism personally. A psychologically safe environment is not necessarily a comfortable environment. Be sure to understand the difference. Individuals must push themselves out of their mental comfort zones, just as if they were pushing themselves on a run or lifting weights at a gym. It is in those spaces that you grow stronger and perform better. Be sure to address negativity at every opportunity. Also, you must be willing to seek help, take responsibility for your actions, and give your leaders a chance to assist in your endeavors.

Leaders at the squad and team level are critical for voicing concerns and offering support both up and down the chain of command. Teams must be aware of Soldiers’ strengths and weaknesses and where there could be vulnerabilities for in-groups and group think. Enforce discipline fairly and be accountable for the successes and failures of the team. If junior leaders are to promote inclusiveness, they must empower Soldiers to share ideas and validate their experiences. Junior leaders should be the first ones who Soldiers seek when they are fearful or need help. Advocate for them and fervently support them.

Lastly, the organization is responsible for breaking the stigma that certain resources can harm careers and are just “insurance” to cover leaders. Move beyond mandatory training and find innovative ways to educate the formation. A little humility can go a long way in showing that everyone can be fallible. Do not shut down criticism. Reward productive discourse and achievements. Encourage Soldiers to use these dedicated Army programs when necessary and ensure you follow up at every opportunity to demonstrate genuine support for the Soldiers' wellness. Leaders who establish daily dialogue with all ranks demonstrate a value for people over processes. This opens up opportunities for leaders to identify the root causes of exclusivity in formations while creating a culture conducive to trust and cohesion.

We are intrinsically motivated to want to belong and be valued, and the above stated strategies are a means to support this motivation in our units. Start asking yourself some questions to build self-awareness of how your actions are either psychologically safe or dangerous. Do you scoff at mandatory training? Do you have favorites? Do you publicly praise others? Do you gossip? Do you own your mistakes? Do you suffer in silence? We must analyze how our behaviors fall on the spectrum of psychological safety versus psychological danger. This is critical to remember in an Army that is people-oriented and relies on cohesive teams to fight and win. Soldiers are capable of doing amazing things because they know others “have their six.” This is psychological safety, and it must extend to our daily battles so that we may exercise the personal courage that the Army profession values. Our actions and reactions matter, as they can cultivate or deteriorate an inclusive and listening environment. By closing that gap, you will move from exclusion to inclusion, from disconnection to understanding, and from fear to courage.


Maj. Kimberly Brutsche is an Air Defense Artillery Officer currently serving as the Assistant Course Director for MX400-Officership at the United States Military Academy. She has a master’s in leadership studies from the University of Texas at El Paso.

Capt. Tiarra McDaniel is an Adjutant General Officer currently serving as an instructor for MX400-Officership at the United States Military Academy. She has a master’s in organizational psychology and leadership from Teachers College, Columbia University.