Ever been on a team where you felt truly trusted? Where you were empowered to try new things and think big, because the potential for growth and learning far outweighed the fear of making a mistake?
These feelings encapsulate a term called psychological safety. We're hearing a lot more about psychological safety in the workplace these days, particularly as more companies begin looking inward for ways to improve culture, team effectiveness, employee engagement, and team performance. And while you might not have ever used that exact term, those feelings of security and trust that you felt toward a team are what’s defined as psychological safety.
Psychological safety is a rather nuanced concept — here, we’ll go deep to help you understand what it means and why you’ll want to invest in it for your team and organization. (Hint: It’s one of the key ingredients in team effectiveness.)
According to Dr. Amy C. Edmondson, the scholar and Harvard Business School professor who coined the term, “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” We learn by asking questions; this is human behavior. When we're children (very young children), it's just about all we do. At that age, we have little shame or concern for how the people around us might respond to our questions and observations.
That changes as we get older — our cognitive process shifts as we become socialized.
After socialization, it's common for our ability to ask questions, point out potential mistakes, and share observations to take a hit, especially at work. We grow more and more concerned with how we’re perceived by others and, as a result, speak up less and less. What's missing and inhibiting our ability to speak openly is a psychologically safe workplace.
Why psychological safety matters
It's easy to think that work is just about getting things done. Of course, hitting goals is key, but doing innovative work is also about cultivating a learning mindset and creativity. And that's where psychological safety comes in.
Feeling safe means employees feel they can express themselves speaking up when something goes wrong, sharing a seemingly silly idea that actually shifts the direction of a project, and acknowledging when they need a break or time off. And, if you're wondering why this matters, it's because when employees recognize they're in a psychologically safe environment, team effectiveness improves, meetings increase in value, learning occurs faster, productivity increases, and you become more resilient. Psychological safety is what makes many teams successful.
Large-scale research backs this up: Google performed a large 4-year study to find out what factors made performance at some companies much better than others, and the biggest differentiator by far was psychological safety on the team level. Google's research, along with Dr. Amy Edmondson's research, found that effective teams were empowered to be so candid that they were able to openly and easily admit their mistakes. They learned from those mistakes and were better for it.
If we aren’t hearing from people, we may be missing out on a game-changing idea that could become a part of a new product or a new service. Or we might miss an early warning of a threat in the market that someone saw but felt unable to bring the bad news to their boss.
According to Edmondson, it is our knowledge and ideas that bring value to the marketplace. So if your people don't believe they can speak up at work and share those ideas for fear of repercussion or being ridiculed, then it stands to reason that you will not perform as well as others who have fostered psychological safety.
Psychological safety plans a vital role in running an effective, high-performing, and resilient team. If you're in a leadership position and want to foster a safe work environment, here are the 3 steps Edmondson recommends to get you started.
Building psychological safety on remote teams requires some extra work and intentionality since it’s just naturally harder to open up with each other and feel connected over video than it is in person.
During in-person conversations, we rely on nonverbal communication, body language, and cues to read the room and gauge how what we’re sharing is being received. Small things, like whether a person is facing you or what a teammate is doing with their arms can help signal their feelings and engagement level. They can signal support or disapproval.
On virtual teams, we have to work a lot harder to send and receive these same signals. So miscommunication and misunderstandings can slip in more frequently.
In absence of these non-verbal indicators, it’s important to build in intentional ways that you and your team can share how you’re doing to create a safe workplace.
Bonus tips for remote and hybrid workplaces (that work for in-office teams too)
Before you begin doing this work on your team, it's important to know where you're starting from. Yes, your employees speak during team meetings, but does everyone regularly share their thoughts? Is your team able to have constructive conflict? Do teammates feel enough of a sense of safety to say no?
To measure a team’s level of psychological safety, Edmondson asked individuals how strongly they agreed or disagreed with these questions:
We mean well, all of us, most of the time. We don't show up to work itching to demonstrate ignorance, incompetence, a lack of trust, or negativity. But when we get called out — not recognized — for asking questions or admitting mistakes, we ultimately stop bringing new ideas and perspectives to the table. It stifles our ability to dream big and discourages a growth mindset. It forces us to retreat and isolate, ourselves instead of being strong team players.
If building a curious, innovative, and high-performing team is your goal, psychological safety is an absolute must. To learn more about it, watch Edmondson’s TED Talk where she provides a 10-minute introduction to the topic.See how Range helps teams invest in strengthening culture every day