Psychological safety has become a management buzzword — and rightly so. According to a Google study, it’s the top factor that sets successful teams apart. When members feel they can take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed, teams are more productive, more innovative and make fewer costly mistakes.
That’s why managers, consultants and business writers have all been telling us to be more vulnerable and empathetic with our co-workers. This is great, but it misses out on one important fact of modern business: Teammates aren’t the only people we depend on. Most mid-size to large companies also depend on external vendors for success.
I’ve been a custom learning design vendor partner to learning teams for more than a decade, and I can tell you from experience: The most effective client-vendor relationships possess psychological safety. I’ve been lucky to have known many of these partnerships and have been amazed at how impactful they’ve been. If you work with vendors, you need to understand what psychological safety is, how to recognize it and how build it into your relationships.
The Importance of Psychological Safety
Companies approach vendors for expertise, and rightly so, expect quality and reliable execution. But in my experience in custom learning, no two projects are alike. Environments and stakeholders can change rapidly throughout the course of a project. And there are usually calculated risks that are worth taking in the spirit of continuous innovation. In short, all the unknowns require close collaboration between client and vendor to navigate effectively.
Vendors, like anyone else, do their best work when they feel safe to take risks. They need to know that they can ask questions, admit problems and volunteer new ideas without being blamed or embarrassed for it. That’s what psychological safety means. This dynamic generates more new ideas, genuine collaboration and longer relationships between clients and vendors, and it impacts engagement on both sides.
Working in a psychologically unsafe environment is uncomfortable and leads vendors to expend energy on the wrong things. Instead of focusing on doing their most impressive work, they worry about making a mistake. Instead of asking their client to clarify their expectations, they try to guess.
This isn’t just stressful for vendors: It’s costly for their clients. When vendors feel like their clients are waiting for them to make a mistake, they play it safe. They hesitate to volunteer new ideas or to innovate. They try to handle problems on their own instead of discussing them openly. Inevitably, this leads to extended schedules and budgets.
Is My Client-vendor Relationship Psychologically Safe?
If psychological safety is important, how can you tell if it’s there? Here are a few signs that things are going well:
- Communication flows in both directions: The Google research found that teams were most effective when all members spoke in roughly equal amounts. In the client-vendor context, this means there should be a free flow of feedback on both sides. If you don’t hear much from vendors between the initial agreement and delivery, that could be a red flag.
- Both sides are sharing new ideas: Volunteering new ideas requires more vulnerability than rehashing your original agreement. When both sides share new ideas, that’s a good sign.
- You receive bad news: Nobody likes to receive bad news from their vendors, but there’s a silver lining. The good news about bad news is that your vendors feel safe enough to deliver it. Honest and direct communication, especially when it’s difficult, is a hallmark of psychological safety. Also, you’ll get a chance to address problems before it’s too late.
- You’re brainstorming and exploring ideas together: I obtain my best results when I’m working with clients instead of just working for When clients participate in the brainstorming and exploratory stages of the project, I gain a deeper understanding of their needs, and the final product will reflect that. However, exploring and experimenting together requires a lot of security and mutual trust. If that’s happening, it’s an indicator that things are going well.
Boosting Psychological Safety in Relationships with Vendors
Sometimes, partnerships just click, and psychological safety comes naturally. Sometimes, it never does. While there’s no guaranteed recipe for psychological safety, there are a few things that you can do to encourage it:
- Lead from a place of trust: Vendors won’t always get things right the first time. But don’t blame them. Instead, offer constructive feedback and trust that they’ll hit the mark reasonably quickly. This will help them get there sooner as well as fostering a dynamic of safety. Of course, even with good communication, there may still be a time when you realize they’re not a good fit. If so, it should never be a surprise to anyone involved.
- Model vulnerability: One of the best ways to encourage others to take risks is to lead by example. Be ready to admit errors and ask questions of your vendor. If you show that you’re vulnerable, this will show them that it’s safe for them, too.
- Find the right vendors: Some vendors are simply not open to the mutual vulnerability that effective collaboration requires. Look for vendor-partners that are open to feedback and willing to work together.
- Set clear expectations: Tell your vendors what you expect of them and what they can expect of you. This provides the basis for a trusting and secure working relationship.
My Vendors’ Psychological Safety
Today’s training industry is becoming more and more agile. It’s almost impossible to gather all the skill sets necessary for success in house. This means relying on external partners. Clients who can build trust and psychologically safe relationships quickly, with a range of vendors, will have a huge advantage in this rapidly changing environment.