An introduction to psychological safety

Why creating a climate of openness in the workplace matters, and how to do it

Michael Boykin,Yellow Squiggle
Illustration of a team working together with trust

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.)

What is psychological safety?

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.

3 steps to foster psychological safety at work

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.

  1. Frame work as a learning problem, not an execution problem, that requires the minds and voices of every member of your team
  2. To encourage changes at the team level, start by modeling the behaviors you wish to see yourself. Show the team it’s OK to make mistakes and be vulnerable. Acknowledging your own fallibility will help encourage your team to speak up themselves
  3. Model curiosity and a growth mindset, making it the status quo by having team leaders ask a lot of questions too

Psychological safety on remote teams (and bonus tips!)

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)

  • Morning status updates: Each morning, encourage your team to share a color, emoji, or other status that briefly describes how they’re feeling that day. (“I was up with my toddler at 4am, so I’m exhausted.” or “I’m stoked! Vacation coming up this weekend.”) When you know what someone’s going through, it helps build empathy around interactions throughout the day.
  • Meeting check-ins: Try starting the beginning of team meetings with a check-in on how everyone’s doing — this can be related to work or personal, it will help set the stage for honest, open conversation throughout the meeting. You can even kick off your meetings with a team-building question to help everyone get to know each other and build trust.
  • Culture of appreciation: Create clear moments where you celebrate each other’s work and individual skills. That might look like designating the last 5 minutes of every team meeting to say “Thanks” to teammates or creating a special #gratitude channel in Slack. Showcasing all the awesome work your team is doing is a great way to build trust and show everyone their work is valued.
  • Meeting facilitation: Try different tactics to encourage participation, active listening (and less interrupting) during your virtual meetings. A spinner or hand-raising tool can be helpful in determining who speaks next so that folks feel they have an equal shot at speaking and being heard by their teammates.
  • Honest feedback: Encourage honest, constructive feedback on your team. One easy way to start practicing this one is to ask your reports for feedback each week in your 1:1s. It can be helpful to give a structured question, like “What’s something I could be supporting you more to achieve?”

How to measure psychological safety

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:

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you?
  2. Are members of this team able to bring up problems and tough issues?
  3. Have people on this team sometimes rejected others for being different?
  4. Is it safe to take a risk on this team?
  5. Is it difficult to ask other members of this team for help?
  6. Would no one on this team deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts?
  7. When working with members of this team, are my unique skills and talents valued and utilized?

Horizontal rule

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.

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Psychological safety: The what, why, and how of it all
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