What is psychological safety?
While it may have spiked in popularity recently, psychological safety is a concept that has been researched and reviewed for decades. As Dr. Amy Edmondson identified in her 1999 research on work teams, psychological safety is a concept that “describes perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context such as a workplace.”
What are the benefits of creating psychologically safe work environments?
MIT professors argued as early as 1965 that psychological safety is what allows people to feel secure and able to change their behaviors when organizational challenges arise. Psychological safety also helps people overcome learning anxiety or defensiveness in the face of new data or beliefs.
Later researchers have also discovered that its presence “enables personal engagement” and “affects peoples’ willingness to employ or express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally” when performing in various roles at work.
Ultimately, decades of research and analysis has discovered that psychological safety in the workplace is what helps enables people to contribute ideas, information and knowledge, make suggestions for improvements, take initiative, be innovative, and ultimately – to learn and perform as part of that learning.
Given what we know about the concept, it seems intuitive that organizations that prioritize creating psychologically safe teams, workspaces, and environments are thereby allowing or encouraging innovation, creativity and deeper engagement by removing the fears associated with risk-taking and candor.
In fact, Google’s Project Aristotle, an organizational effort to research and understand team effectiveness, identified five critical elements that underpin effectiveness with psychological safety being the most important. Within Google, researchers found that “individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.”
How can leaders create psychologically safe environments?
In her research, Edmondson found that in order to create psychological safety, leaders had to implement both behavioral and structural changes – consistently and continuously. She provides the first and last steps as a general framework that will open the door for the conversation to begin.
1) Set the Stage: Let’s assume you’re starting at zero. Perhaps up until now, the workplace hasn’t been a space for taking risks or challenging ideas. The first thing you’ll want to do is to define your intentions and vision (e.g. create an environment of candor or create an innovative product), and share that with your team. You should explain your vision or ideal end-state, what you hope to accomplish or change by beginning this initiative, how it can be achieved, and open up the floor for people to discuss their reactions or ask questions.
2) Admit Mistakes: Leading by example is critical and one powerful way to do this is by admitting your own mistakes. In the early stages of any massive change, there are bound to be missteps – by being vulnerable and transparent about these times, you can inspire trust. And beyond that, you can show your employees that everyone makes mistakes, and that its okay for them to make mistakes – they don’t have to misplace blame or cover it up in fear of negative repercussions. One great example of a leader turning a public mistake into a springboard for transformation: Satya Nadella of Microsoft.
3) Elicit Feedback: One of the earliest structural changes that you can make is setting aside a dedicated time to check-in: “How is X effort progressing? What went well? What can we improve?” The format of this feedback session will depend on your team – while some leaders prefer face-to-face sessions to strengthen the relationships and ask thoughtful follow-up questions, others may find that people are more candid when delivering their feedback in another format.
4) Embrace Criticism: In her book, Edmondson found that one executive leader at a hospital discovered that asking, “Was everything as safe as it could be?” as opposed to “Did you see hazards?” or “Did someone make a mistake?” led to more engaged and profound discussions. Many people aren’t necessarily primed to elaborate beyond the absence of failure so challenging their automatic response can lead to more thoughtful responses. By assuming that the current state was one that could be improved, this leader was able to elicit meaningful ideas that sparked positive change.
5) Respond Productively: Providing virtual suggestion boxes that go unanswered isn’t sufficient. To facilitate feelings of safety, employees have to know that their leaders receive and respond appropriately to feedback and criticism. If it becomes evident over time that no changes are made as a result of the feedback, people will eventually stop engaging. Alternatively, when people see that they can share their critical feedback, new ideas, and toughest challenges, and that their leaders will support them, brainstorm and help find solutions, they’re more likely to continue sharing.
How can we approach psychological safety with a focus on diversity and inclusion?
Although discussion, mutual understanding and feedback is critical, ultimately, people have different needs, they can experience similar situations in unique ways, and what makes one person feel safe may not apply to another person. Additionally, a homogeneous environment can make it even more difficult for a person from an under-represented background to be candid about their thoughts, feelings and experiences - for fear of not being heard, not being understood or being isolated from the group for sharing a dissenting opinion. Leaders should approach psychological safety for under-represented groups with intention, by aiming to create diverse teams and being candid about why it’s especially critical to elicit feedback from people with diverse experiences.
Asking for feedback can start with questions like: "What do you think about XYZ?" "What do you need in order to feel comfortable and safe?" "What challenges are you having with speaking up within the group context and how can we address those concerns?"
Listening and acting on those responses, with an attitude of learning and continuous improvement, will lead to an increased sense of safety and belonging.
Despite what we know about the outsized effects psychological safety on engagement and performance, most organizations are not prioritizing it - making it a competitive advantage for those that do. Beyond bottom-line impact, as employees weigh their options in the labor market, an organization that prioritizes candor and provides a safety net for people when they fall, will always rise to the top.
Where can leaders learn more?
- How to Turn a Group of Strangers into a Team by Amy Edmondson
- re:Work Guide: Understand Team Effectiveness by Google
- Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe by Simon Sinek
- The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth by Amy Edmondson