Be a Ninja at Challenging Thinking and Building Psychological Safety

Have you ever talked with someone who has changed your perspective by a simple turn of phrase? Or been stuck on the one way to see an issue with someone who asks a question and boom! the perfect idea or solution pops out of someone’s mouth – all through their clever questioning and support. Simply by helping talk through an issue or conundrum, these ninjas elevate our thinking and lift our eyes. I call mine my Challenge Ninjas. My Ninjas never make me feel silly, small or wrong. They help me think boldly, differently and support me to try things out. They are the queens and kings of creating a sense of psychological safety for me and others to get to be the best ‘us’ we can be.

Psychological safety is getting a great deal of press lately, as well it should.  High performance is found when teams can create a sense of risk-taking, voice and belonging that brings about authentic debate and exploration. Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School has been leading great research into this area, as well as Daniel Coyle, author of Culture Code. Google has also famously researched its high-performance teams in Project Aristotle and found that in the five key dynamics, ‘psychological safety was far and away from the most important.’ Edmondson’s definition of psychological safety is a climate where people feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks by speaking up and sharing concerns, questions and ideas.

Great teams who have psychological safety are full of Challenge Ninjas. Challenge is often seen as an aggressive word – but when we look at growth and transformation in our work, we can’t do it without challenging the current paradigm. And if we don’t have psychological safety, this turns to defensiveness and a sense of being under attack. Interestingly, this type of psychological safety is not warm and fuzzy, it’s high energy and exciting – I call it The Buzz. And when we’ve got it, it’s contagious!

So, when I see leaders blitzing this space, they have a few major skills we should build. We need them in ourselves and our teams. Reflect on the people who bring out your best thinking and work. What attributes do you see in them? How do they make you feel? How do they make you think?

Building your Challenge Ninja Skills:

Challenge thinking with wonder and curiosity, not JUDGEMENT.

Think about times when you’ve been challenged by someone to think differently, but the call to do it has been laced with judgement and criticism. Straight away our defensiveness rises and we shut down the best thinking. Great Challenge Ninjas know just the right tonality and inquiry to set the tone for a good exploration, not defensive missiles back and forth. They also know how to ask wondering questions with authentic curiosity.

Make challenge thinking explicit

Conversations that have clearly framed that we are going to challenge our thinking to allow us to let down our normal armour. It helps us to be clear that we are learning and exploring what we think – without judgement. Challenge beliefs, frameworks, processes – all with a sense of curiosity and a bit of fun.

Understand that people need different things to feel that safety

Humans are complex – it is not a one size fits all. Be transparent about creating an environment where people feel valued, heard and open to challenging the ‘way we do things around here’

Be self-aware

Have self-awareness of the impact you have on others with your questioning techniques – does it encourage discussion and exploration of thinking, or shut it down? Get some clear feedback on it.

Be the Lead Learner

Show that you are open to influence and learning as well.  Nothing worse than a leader that has LEARNT – past tense.  Definitely not ninja material!

Tracey Ezard is a speaker, author and educator on creating collaborative cultures and high performance.

For more thinking about psychological safety and creating the BUZZ of high performance teams, contact [email protected]


Tracey Ezard

Tracey Ezard is a Melbourne-based consultant that focuses on leadership and learning the culture. She is a keynote speaker, author and educator. Mentoring organisations of varied industries, Tracey works with leaders and teams to improve collaborative cultures in large, and often multifaceted, workplace communities. Change is inevitable for every business model, and through innovation and deep communication, Tracey brings leaders and their teams on a journey to engagement by creating an energy buzz.

Tracey Ezard
+61 417 371 563
[email protected]

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