Today's businesses accomplishes much of their work through teamwork 1 2. Rather than being individuals at work, multi-disciplined teams are working collectively to accomplish their goals. Product design, patient care, strategy development, and rescue operations are a few examples that call for collaborative work 1. The field of organisational research has identified psychological safety as an important factor in how people collaborate to achieve a shared outcome 1. More then enough reasons to properly introduce psychological safety.
"The belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking". (Amy Edmondson, 1999)
Edmondson's definition is the most prominent one in today's literature. Thanks to her work the concept of psychological research was codified. Especially for practical and actionable use.
Nevertheless, Edmondson was not the first to research psychological safety. Already in 1954 the psychologist Carl Rogers coined the term "psychological safety". In his papers he described it as an environment where external evaluation is absent. Well known theories as Deming's 14 Points of Management (Point 8: Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company) and the Andon Cord in the Toyota Production System are examples of raising psychological safety.
Individuals that feel psychologically safe in a team will be less concerned with the way others might react when introducing a new idea or when voicing a concern. High levels of psychological safety have been linked to higher levels of creative thinking and risk-taking, innovation in R&D teams, process improvements in manufacturing, knowledge creation, and the successful implementation of technology 2. Frazier et. al. recognises that psychological safety is a key factor in facilitating the processes of learning, collaborating, and employee engagement 3.
The performance enabling role of psychological safety has consistently been found in numerous studies 1. Especially when organisational learning is important, psychological safety is as well 1. Much of today's organisational learning happens between the interactions of interdependent individuals. Individual's concerns about interpersonal risk or consequences could limit the learning behaviours of these individuals. High levels of psychological safety can reduce these concerns and as such contribute to organisational learning.
Summarising, psychological safety contributes to:
Tom Geraghty (from psychsafety.co.uk) summarises it as:
Fundamentally, building psychological safety is not only the right thing to do for members of your teams, but it’s the right thing to do for your business or your organisation.
An environment of psychological safety does not mean an environment that is free of conflict or only being nice. On contrary, an environment of psychological safety allows for openness, honesty, and sincerity. It allows for healthy debates and discussions to improve ideas, get better solutions, or prevent mistakes.
Pixar's braintrust, described in the book Creativity Inc., is a great example of how an environment of psychological safety leads to great results. Patrick Lencioni describes the fear of conflict as a dysfunction of a team.
There are many ways a leader can foster an environment of psychological safety. Most important contributions can be made in growing trust, being open, and embrace failure. For example by:
In most organizations, 80% of the conversations are dominated by only 20% of the participants. Psychological Safety is not just about helping people feel safe, but encouraging participation – all voices must be heard.
Women, minority groups, and introverts who choose to stay silent at work rather than run the risk of unfair criticism and judgment aren’t just being afraid. They’re being silenced by louder people.
Research by Adam Grant shows that it is much more difficult for women to earn recognition than it is for men. By analyzing different companies, the organizational psychologist found that when male employees introduce an idea to increase revenue, they get significantly higher performance reviews than women who contributed equally valuable insights.
Conversational turn-taking is a useful practice to ensure that everyone gets their air time. Most importantly, you want to give more room to the quiet voices over the louder ones.
Australian tech unicorn Atlassian practices conversational turn-taking to ensure even participation among all team members. When participants speak one-at-a-time in alternating turns, you can avoid interruptions and groupthink.
Senior executives get to talk last, so they don’t influence or intimidate others. As Simon Sinek said, “Leader always eat last.”
1 Edmondson, A., & Lei, Z. (2014). Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1(1), 23–43. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-031413-091305
2 Newman, A., Donohue, R., & Eva, N. (2017). Psychological safety: A systematic review of the literature. Human Resource Management Review, 27(3), 521–535. https:/doi.org/10.1016/j.hr mr.2017.01.001
3 Frazier, M. L., Fainshmidt, S., Klinger, R. L., Pezeshkan, A., & Vracheva, V. (2017). Psychological Safety: A Meta-Analytic Review and Extension. Personnel Psychology, 70(1), 113–165. https: //doi.org/10.1111/peps.12183