How sociocracy promotes vulnerability, trust, and psychological safety

But how are you really doing?

When is the last time you talked with colleagues about what is *really* going on in your life? And how safe do you feel to bring up feedback to your supervisors? These are measures of psychological safety in the workplace. 

When Google set out to find what makes the perfect team, their researchers were surprised to find that psychological safety and relationships between employees were extremely important. One manager created a safe space to talk about problems by modeling personal sharing. He started a meeting by sharing that he had stage 4 cancer. Modeling this vulnerability shifted the meeting to a place of deep and meaningful personal sharing. Team members shared hardships of their own, from medical issues to painful breakups. The team shifted their focus back to a group project and was able to speak more honestly about things that hadn’t been going well. Then the team agreed to new group norms, and to bring up problems sooner. In this example, personal sharing made it safer to talk about friction and things that weren’t going well professionally.

Promoting psychological safety is one of the byproducts of sociocracy. Sociocracy, a set of tools to ensure shared power, has many principles and practices, and many of them positively affect how safe we feel in the organization. Just like the Google manager modeled vulnerability, sociocracy makes space for personal check-ins before every meeting. Intentional feedback and shared leadership also help create psychologically safe spaces where employees can voice their concerns. 

The benefits of psychological safety

Psychological safety can lead to many benefits (Newman 2017), including:

  • Higher performing teams
  • Reducing errors and increasing safety
  • Increasing team and individual learning
  • Employees giving more feedback and voicing concerns

Let’s take a closer look at what the research says about conditions that promote psychological safety, and how sociocracy fits into the picture.

Why can’t we skip the check-in? Vulnerability and trust

Check-in rounds in sociocracy are a time for everyone to take a moment and take turns sharing how they’re arriving at a meeting. Check-ins can be brief, but are sometimes moments of deep vulnerability, increasing trust. The strength of social interactions in a group is a key driver of psychological safety. (Newman 2017) It’s important not to skip check-ins because that is a vital time for social connection, building trust, and vulnerability. 

“The more a leader and follower interact with each other, the more they are willing to be vulnerable to each other.” Nienaber 2014. Vitally, vulnerability predicts psychological safety. Mane thesis, 2019 The Google manager who shared about his cancer may have known this intuitively, and that is something that all of us can learn from.

What is shared leadership, and how does it create psychological safety?

Shared leadership is a process where a group dynamically takes turns leading to achieve a common goal. In sociocracy, the aims provide common goals that unite circle members. Selecting leaders from amongst your peers with fixed terms leads to shared leadership in a literal way. Often you may be the leader of one circle and a follower in another circle, or you may take turns being a leader with coworkers. Additionally, leader inclusiveness through collaborating on circle decisions can be seen as shared leadership in sociocracy. Circles share decision-making in policies that bind and give guidance to everyone, including the leader.

Shared leadership and leader inclusiveness lead to psychological safety because employees feel safer approaching their supervisors. Nembhard & Edmondson, 2006

Shared leadership is also related to:

  • Employees speaking up about concerns (“employee voice”)
  • Team learning
  • Individual learning

All of these benefits are thought to be caused by increased psychological safety. (Newman 2017)

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Benefits of psychological safety 

Psychological safety has been found to be the number one characteristic of successful high-performing teams. That’s a pretty big deal!

Psychological safety is critically important in high-risk work environments such as healthcare and aviation, as it has been shown to improve safety and reduce errors. In these cases, psychological safety can be a matter of life and death, so promoting it is vitally important.

Other benefits of psychological safety (Newman 2017) include:

  • Better communication
  • Employees speaking up with problems
  • More giving and receiving feedback throughout the organization
  • Higher creativity
  • More risk-taking
  • Learning from failures
  • Higher commitment from employees to the organization

These findings have been supported multiple times in literature on psychological safety, including in Frazier 2017.

When there is psychological safety, a benefit of collective decision-making also appears. Psychological safety gives team members the courage to admit failure after a bad collective decision. Researchers argue that when there is shared responsibility, it is safer to fail. O’Neill 2009


We can see that check-ins and shared leadership may lead to increased psychological safety in sociocratic organizations and that there are many benefits to psychological safety. Sociocratic organizations haven’t been specifically studied regarding psychological safety, and that’s something we’d like to change! Stay tuned as we work on a research project for sociocratic organizations, with results coming in Fall 2023.

Read more about the benefits of employee voice and feedback processes in the next article in this series.


Frazier, M. L., Fainshmidt, S., Klinger, R.L., Pezeshkan, A., Vracheva, V. (2017). Psychological Safety: A Meta-Analytic Review and Extension. Personnel Psychology 70(1), 114- 165.

Mane, A .S .D. (2019). Establishing Psychological Safety in Teams and the Role of Vulnerability and Inclusive Leadership (Publication No. 4299973) [Master’s thesis, Utrecht University].

Nembhard, I.M, & Edmonson, A.C. (2006.) Making it safe: the effects of leader inclusiveness and professional status on psychological safety and improvement efforts in health care teams. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27(7) 941-966.

Newman, A., Donohue R., Eva,N. (2017). Psychological safety: A systematic review of the literature, Human Resource Management Review, 27 (3) 521-535.

Nienaber, Ann-Marie & Hofeditz, Marcel & Romeike, Philipp. (2015). Vulnerability and trust in Leader-Follower relationships. Personnel Review.

O’Neill, O.A. (2009), Workplace Expression of Emotions and Escalation of Commitment. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39: 2396-2424.