How To Influence an Effective and Safe Team Culture

Building a safe, collaborative, thoughtful, stimulating, productive, innovative, and effective team requires a safe, collaborative, thoughtful, stimulating, productive, innovative, and effective culture.

The Google Aristotle project revealed this insight: “For a team to be effective, members need to work really well together.” For that to occur, you need a safe team culture for team members to be able to be themselves and feel safe. Safe enough to voice their opinions. Safe to disagree with you and each other, and bring up half-baked ideas and questions without being mocked or silenced.

They need an environment where they can say “I don’t know how to do this” or “I need help”. If you make a mistake, you shouldn’t be afraid of the consequences.

My top 3 favorite benefits of psychologically safe workplaces are:

  1. A  significant source of job fulfillment. Not every team is working to end world hunger or cure cancer. What if the actual job or business model is less fulfilling than you’d like it to be? A healthy team culture can lead to fulfillment no matter the product or service.

    Our team, for example, works on Data Collection; Might not be the sexiest or most motivating thing in the world; but we find immense value and fulfillment in 3 ways: Taking care of each other, striving to build the most amazing team ever, and bringing the highest value possible to our customers and their customers.
  2. Low turnover. People would want to stay and would rarely consider other offers, even if they paid more. People would want to join as well; a team with a safe, fun, and effective culture is extremely attractive.
  3. 9-5 can compete with entrepreneurship. I might go as far as suggesting that a thriving culture can dispel the myth that you can never get to the same level of fulfillment in a 9-5 job as when running your own business; or even the same level of financial success.

No matter what the company culture is, you can always have your own mini culture within your team and enjoy the 9-5.

Creating a psychologically safe environment requires a great deal of effort and intent; it’s a daily routine.

With that in mind, I’d like to share my observations regarding our team’s culture that we’ve built at Adobe.

the 3 pillars of an effective and safe team culture:

Relationships  -->  Trust  -->  Collaboration

1. Real Relationships

I believe it all starts here: We need to know and validate the human behind the coworker.

We are all humans. As humans, we are more than workers: We feel stress. We have loved ones at home. We have illness. We have heavy responsibilities. We have hobbies. We have financial problems. We have kids. We have things to say…

It’s way easier to think of each other as emotionless robots who write some code or do something and go home because investing in real relationships is hard and comes at a cost. But getting to know each other personally leads to a higher level of empathy; it leads to a more enjoyable working environment, which leads to better and more effective teams.

first step to building deeper bonds

Exemplify empathy, openness and authenticity. Be genuinely interested in learning who your team members really are and how they are doing.

As the leader of the group, you can start by letting others into your life first by sharing your thoughts, perspectives, feelings and small personal stories. You can also start by checking on your team’s wellbeing and asking simple open ended personal questions to allow them to share their personal stories.

Remember that everyone has a different level of comfort when it comes to sharing personal information, so you need to respect boundaries. I cannot stress how important this first step is, especially in this new world of remote and hybrid work.

The minute you ask “How you doing?”, be ready to listen to the answer. Do your best to follow up later. Take notes if you need a reminder, there is nothing wrong with that. This is how I am building my habit, I take notes not to be impersonal, but because I genuinely care about what they say and I don’t want to forget because I have an awful memory (my wife will attest to that!).

Practical examples we do on our team

Check on each other before checking on tasks

We start most meetings by checking in on each other, sharing simple stories from our personal lives and joking around a bit. If someone is having a tough day, you can offer support. If they’re doing great, you can celebrate with them.

Even in Stand Ups! 😱 I love Agile practices as much as the next person, but the whole idea of “stand up, give your update as fast as possible and get out of there” is not that interesting to me. We’ll talk more about having effective meetings in Principle 6.

I have mentioned this before, but my favorite team trait is that we don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we take our craft and team extremely seriously.

Team Building Events

We plan “team building” events on a regular basis, and we try to set topics and themes which makes it easier for everyone to participate and share. For example:

  1. Lunch & Discussion: We planned a remote lunch a few weeks ago, and each participant received an Uber Eats gift card. In addition, I set the meeting topic to “Parenting” and included three specific questions in the invitation. The reason for this is to allow everyone to come prepared and to give everyone an opportunity to speak. We had a great and engaging conversation, we learned something about each other, and about our parenting styles.

    Happy hours are enjoyable, but I believe they tend to alienate introverted and quiet team members, especially when held virtually. Setting a specific topic and inviting people to participate worked perfectly for us.
  2. Show & tell: This might be my favorite event! We planned lunch, and the ask was for every team member to come present on something “cool” from their personal lives, and show pictures of their families and loved ones. This is where I learned that Gary is a pilot, Jon developed calculator games in pre-school or something crazy like that, Aaron is obsessed with banana Stickers (Yup, the stickers that come on your bananas 😂), Brandon used to be a private investigator (CREEPY!!), Shamiul knows a little bit about Everything! especially investing, Nina is taking tennis lessons from a professional player and more… They also know that I write children’s books.

    I believe this meeting has brought us all closer to each other by sharing and learning intimate aspects of our personal lives. I now know when someone is going through some stressful times, and the team knows when I’m working through something.
  3. Virtual Camp Fire & Games: This was soooo much fun. We use the service. They send you a tiny s’mores kit and they plan games and scary stories. I highly recommend this event! We also which was equally fun, and learned that Don C. cannot be beaten!
  4. Volunteering, Playing & Eating: We planned an amazing group volunteering event, played golf, and had Lebanese food! We invited people from the larger org, not only our immediate team. We actually do that in every Team Building meeting to get to know people around us.

These only few ideas in case you are looking to plan your next team building event.

I also recommend that you make every effort to meet with your team in person, especially in this remote work environment. Make an effort to request funding, plan events, and get everyone excited about getting together and working from the office for a few days. My most recent visit to the Lehi office was fantastic, I can’t wait to go back!

encourage disagreeable givers

“Disagreeable givers are the people who, on the surface, are rough and tough, but ultimately have others’ best interests at heart,” – Adam Grant

I highly recommend the Ted talk by Adam Grant to learn more about this topic. Understanding this concept helped me understand my team members better. I also suggest reading Adam’s book Thing Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.

AgreeableSays yes to everythingNice to your face, stabs you in the back
DisagreeableMost undervalued employee! Gives feedback no one wants to hear, but everyone needs to hear; while doing the work. Talks the talk and walks the walk.Needs weeding out of the team
Adam Grant – Are you a giver or a taker

I encourage my team members to be disagreeable givers in 2 ways:

  1. Speak up: We make it really clear that you can and need to voice your opinion and disagreement. If I notice that someone is not speaking up in group meetings, I reach out privately and encourage them to do so; I make it clear that no one will judge or get upset if someone does not agree with their solution or proposal. I sometimes call on them in the meeting to give them an opportunity to speak.
  2. Empathy: We take mentorship and helping others very seriously on the team. It’s a main topic in most 1:1 check ins. We want to empower the team, not only the individual. We encourage reaching out to each other privately, planning lunches with each other, asking each other if we need help.

    We never point fingers when something goes wrong. We fix it, plan a post mortem and see how we can learn from it and prevent it in the future.

As a leader, focus less on catching your team members doing something wrong; Try to catch them doing something right and praise them for it!

2. Trust

Trust. Trust is a tricky one. You want your team to trust you, you want to trust them and you want them to trust each other. This topic deserves its own blog post or book.

The first requirement for trust: Real Relationships.
The second requirement: Trust them first!

Your team has to trust you before they allow you to really lead them. They need to know you have their backs and that they can be themselves with you and speak their minds. They want to know that you have their interest at heart.

This will sound counterintuitive but a confident Manager Through Leadership starts by trusting his team members first. This is essential! Trusting your team members gives them the confidence and ownership they need to take on any challenge.

It’s on you to support them, check in with them regularly and mentor them. Give them room to innovate and make mistakes. Things will go wrong, especially in the beginning. Fix it without pointing fingers, set up a post-mortem to learn from what happened, and brainstorm ideas on how to prevent this from happening. Move on.

Here’s how I learned this lesson the hard way:

When I first got assigned to the Web SDK project, I didn’t know how to trust a brand-new team and was worried they wouldn’t trust me. So what did I do? I went ahead and put together a POC (proof of concept) of the SDK we’re supposed to build. I knew the size and impact of this library, and I was worried we wouldn’t be able to pull it off with a brand-new team.

A few days later, after sharing the POC with the team, we started having design and architecture meetings. I of course started the meetings by suggesting proposals and solutions. But when I listened (The one thing I did right) to my team members voicing their counterarguments and suggestions I learned how freaking awesome they were! Slowly but surely, I realized the mistake I made.

I started changing course right away. We broke down the project into smaller components and assigned a leader to each one with full ownership and autonomy. I took a step back and put together high-level processes, guiding the conversations to keep us on course by asking questions, speaking after them, and supporting them. I still make mistakes constantly. But I try to make up for them in 5 ways:

  1. Don’t do things for the team they can do themselves
  2. Listen to them intently
  3. Recognize the awesome things my team members do and praise them
  4. Give honest feedback when things go wrong and work on solutions together
  5. Put the team members and their wellbeing first, before any project or task

The third requirement: Time!

I don’t hear many people talking about this. The time thing. It takes time to build relationships. Which means it takes time to build trust.

I think the reason it takes time is that people want to see you do these nice things for a considerable amount of time to make sure it’s not fake before they let you in and trust you.

So, patience & consistency are your best friends.

Building real relationships and trust will lead to the team trusting each other, which moves us to an environment of…

3. Collaboration

So far, it all sounds idealistic and perfect. Trust me; it’s not all that.

There will be room for hard work, setting up high standards, late nights, heated arguments, confrontations, dealing with low performers, dealing with disagreeable takers, people quitting the team, low budgets, and layoffs… But we can’t start building with that in mind; a leader must lay a solid foundation and set up a vision and culture for the team. A strong foundation will not prevent downturns. Instead, it will equip you and your team with enough tools to overcome any adverse situation.

A team founded on genuine relationships, trust, and empathy will result in a culture of safety, honesty, and collaboration.

Here are a few tips to help you set the stage for a safe team environment:

  • Share the vision and invite participation: As a leader, it’s on you to help all the members feel safe and welcome to participate:
    1. Start by sharing the vision with the whole team. The idea of creating a safe environment where you can voice your opinion, ask for help, and disagree. Just talk about this openly.
    2. Reach out to overly quiet or intimidated members privately, encouraging them to participate and speak up. Then during meetings, ask them simple questions about the topic being discussed, which might help them share their opinions and counterarguments. After that, hopefully, they will feel safe enough to say they don’t know or ask for help.
  • Encourage mentorship in 1:1s and team meetings: Make mentorship one of the career performance metrics. Pair people together to help each other, solve problems and share knowledge. This will result in people offering help and welcoming help from others.
  • Discuss the importance of a collaborative team openly: Discuss the fact that being part of a team is not a zero-sum game; it’s a positive-sum game, especially when we share knowledge and help each other. There’s this scarcity idea that there’s a finite amount of credit to have, which is invalid. Talk about these topics with the team openly and work together to reach those goals; create the culture as a team; it’s not the leader’s sole responsibility. A leader can start the process. A team can complete it. Make it an intention of the team to build and improve the team.
  • Lead by example: You can and should ask for help as well. You don’t need to know everything! When you have free time, reach out to the team and offer support, making it clear that you are free and available if they need anything; they don’t always have to wait for the pre-scheduled 1:1 meetings. Maybe they want to run a problem they are solving by someone, or they need a break and welcome a fun, non-work conversation. Do this with your team members, and they will do it with each other and you.


An collaborative, effective and safe culture leads to the following benefits:

  • Higher levels of productivity
  • Higher levels of fulfillment
  • Higher levels of happiness
  • Higher levels of dedication

Such a culture is built on 3 pillars:

  1. Genuine Relationships
  2. Trust
  3. Collaboration

Here are a few additional concrete actions that you start taking today:

  • Trust your team members first
  • Empathize and don’t expect 100% every day
  • Challenge them
  • Have their backs and defend them
  • Give them honest and productive feedback and advice to help grow their careers
  • Be proactive about their financial compensation (More on that in future posts, very important topic)
  • Be emotionally stable so that when your team members talk to you, they know what to expect. Control your mood and emotions.
  • Try not to do things for them they can do themselves

Leaders set the stage; team members build the team.

Thank you so much for reading! Please share your thoughts or advice on this topic in the comments section below; we can all learn from each other.

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By Joe Khoury