What Is Psychological Safety, and Why It Matters at Work
March 27, 2023
Google’s extensive two-year study of their highest-performing teams found that they all shared 5 key factors – but the most important was psychological safety.
“Psychological safety” is a term first coined by organisational behaviourist Amy Edmondson. It describes the shared belief amongst members of a group that it is safe for them to share opinions and be their true selves, without fear of backlash or belittlement.
According to Edmondson, psychological safety describes a “climate of interpersonal trust and mutual respect”. At work, this means that employees feel emotionally secure in voicing opinions, sharing ideas, taking risks, and communicating feedback.
Why is psychological safety important in the workplace?
Psychological safety is a critical component of any effective organisation and a basic tenet of a collaboration-centric workplace.
That’s because psychologically safe employees feel acknowledged, appreciated, and respected. In turn, they are motivated to take better risks, speak their minds, and exercise creativity – all behaviours that encourage innovation and breakthrough.
A study by the University of North Carolina also reveals that positive emotions associated with psychological safety, like trust and confidence, help employees be more resilient, open-minded, and creative at problem-solving.
And companies that lack psychological safety are worse off for it – a paper by Baer and Frese found that process innovations and organisational changes had a muted effect on firm performance when executed in the absence of psychological safety.
On the other hand, it found that companies with psychologically safe work environments enjoyed improved talent retention and higher revenue per employee.
Do your employees feel psychologically safe?
For individual employees, it’s easy to know if there are psychological safety issues at work.
If you feel reluctant to voice an idea for fear of ridicule; are afraid to share honest feedback with your manager lest they get defensive; or actively avoid taking ownership at work to fend off finger-pointing and blame – you do not feel psychologically safe.
But for HR and team managers, identifying psychological safety issues may not be as straightforward. Most times it’s a Catch-22 – those who do not feel psychologically safe are unlikely to share their concerns for fear of reprisal.
Instead, look for manifestations of psychological safety in the workplace. Consider:
- During ideation meetings, are employees actively participating, sharing opinions, and asking questions?
- When goals are not met, is more effort spent discussing causes and solutions than assigning blame?
- When negative feedback is given, do employees know how to process it as constructive criticism and not a personal attack?
- Are there multiple channels available for employee feedback, including an option for anonymous feedback?
If your answer is “No” to any of the above, your organisation may be facing psychological safety issues.
How do you foster psychological safety at work?
According to Edmondson, there are three main considerations when establishing psychological safety in the workplace:
- framing problems as learning opportunities;
- acknowledging your own fallibility; and
- asking lots and lots of questions.
In more actionable terms, this means:
1. Actively soliciting upward feedback
Fallibility increases trust in leaders.
From senior management to individual team leads, actively seeking upward feedback communicates humility, a willingness to acknowledge personal mistakes and shortcomings, and an openness to differing opinions.
But before inviting employee feedback, it’s important to first learn how to accept feedback. This is especially important when receiving criticisms, so you don’t end up shooting down opinions or lashing out defensively. Reactions like these will only backfire on your efforts and worsen psychological safety issues.
In the early days, when employees are still feeling unsafe about sharing upward feedback, the option of anonymity could help encourage participation.
2. Establishing communication rules for conflict management
To establish trust, people need to communicate – and nothing tests communication like conflict management.
A psychologically safe environment is not one where people nod along and agree with each other just to be nice. It is the exact opposite – psychological safety emboldens people to speak candidly and exchange ideas freely in “productive disagreement”.
Establishing rules of engagement gives everyone a framework to share opinions and effectively deliver constructive criticism, while maintaining important principles like respect and empathy. Using a communication template like constructive disagreement is another way to conduct healthy discussions based on conflict.
The key is dwelling less on the who and moving forward to the what (went wrong), why (it happened), and how (do we learn from it).
3. Building a culture of curiosity
The next time you’re conducting a post-mortem, try replacing blame with curiosity. This means having a learning mindset and asking neutral, inquisitive questions.
Instead of: “Who made this mistake?”
Try: “What are some things we think went wrong?” and “How can we prevent them from happening again in the future?”
Instead of: “Which one of you didn’t do your job properly?”
Try: “What do we think could have been done better?” and “How can we apply what we’ve learnt moving forward?”
Replacing blame does not mean replacing accountability – managers can still acknowledge that an individual’s behaviour was a problem. The key is dwelling less on the who and moving forward to the what (went wrong), why (it happened), and how (do we learn from it).
Building a culture of curiosity over blame naturally reduces defensiveness and encourages people to question the status quo. When questions like “Why did you do it this way instead of that way?” and “How did you arrive at this decision?” are no longer taken as personal offense, they can spark meaningful discussions.
After all, an inquisitive workforce is the cornerstone of any innovative company.
Psychological safety at work is not about coddling your employees – it’s about getting them comfortable with conflict because they trust that open discourse will lead to better outcomes.
4. Regularly measuring your psychological safety
The only way to know if you’ve improved is to establish a baseline and track your progress.
The act of measuring psychological safety also makes it an explicit part of your HR initiative, which serves to give it weight and signifies its importance to the company.
You can use this psychological safety survey by Edmondson as a base, and modify it with additional questions like, “How confident are you that providing honest feedback to your teammates will not be met with retaliation or defensiveness?”
In a psychologically safe romantic relationship, both partners are not afraid to argue because they believe that they are both fighting for a better future, and that the fighting process will be grounded in fairness, empathy, and respect.
Likewise, psychological safety at work is not about coddling your employees – it’s about getting them comfortable with conflict because they trust that open discourse will lead to better outcomes.
As a HR or team manager, this entails building a workplace environment that is challenging without being threatening; ensuring there are measures in place to protect employees from unfair retaliation; and building channels or processes that encourage candid, constructive, and respectful communication.
Implementing new processes and adopting new technologies will have limited impact on your company’s performance if your people are afraid to take risks, share ideas, and collaborate. Fostering psychological safety at work is key to nurturing innovation and driving productivity.