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How Important Is Psychological Safety, Really?

The emphasis on people in the workplace has become more prevalent in recent years as more organizations focus on the relationships teams have with one another. 

Ask virtually any workplace culture or Human Resources expert, and they’ll likely tell you that people are a company’s greatest asset and that a positive employee relationship is a key pillar of organizational success.

But no team, regardless of the relationships they have, can thrive in a toxic work environment. That’s where many HR professionals and workplace experts begin to examine psychological safety. 

It may not seem like the most crucial element of one’s organizational culture, and yet, with burnout, high turnover and disengagement such common issues for companies today, psychological safety is more important than ever for the health and success of your organization. 

What is ‘psychological safety’?

The notion of ‘psychological safety’ was first introduced in the late 1990s by Harvard researcher, Amy Edmondson. The crux of this concept pertains to employees feeling safe in their work environments when it comes to interpersonal risk 

A workplace or team is psychologically safe when they are able to speak candidly, productively disagree with one another, and freely exchange ideas without the fear or threat of being humiliated or ostracized by their team members. 

In psychologically safe work environments, you can voice your opinions, share your perspectives, and even fail without the worry of being judged or punished for doing so. 

What psychological safety isn’t 

Surprisingly, psychological safety isn’t about being nice. Nor is it about constantly agreeing with one another for the sake of avoiding hurt feelings. 

Instead, what this type of safety accomplishes is a state of trust and confidence where people on different sides of a conflict can be transparent with one another and arrive at a productive solution. 

Think about your last unproductive team meeting: a team member has an idea that the majority of the team may disagree with, but everyone nods politely and agrees to go along with the idea simply to avoid hurting a colleague’s feelings. After, the other team members talk amongst themselves about their grievances, but nothing gets resolved because of the lack of candor and transparency. 

While it may be uncomfortable to voice your opinion or ask a question to clarify your concerns, psychologically safe workplaces can actually foster more productivity because of that discomfort. It allows for growth by sharing different perspectives and shows other team members that it’s okay to speak up. 

The world’s top organizations harness psychological safety

More than just a trend, many of the world’s top companies have for some time been assessing the psychological safety of their organizations to determine how it impacts their teams’ work and output. 

Google is a classic example; with Project Aristotle, the company’s attempt to unearth what, exactly, makes their teams most productive, they found that psychological safety was at the top of the list. 

Like Google initially did, it’s easy to assume that the most productive teams are built on hard-working individuals who all share common traits and hard skills. But the opposite can be true, as Google’s experiment found.

The power of psychological safety lies in the ability to openly admit when we’re making mistakes and how we can improve, essentially viewing ‘failure’ as the opportunity to learn, grow and evolve within a company. 

What psychological safety looks like

No two workplaces are the same, but you can tell a psychologically safe team from one that is psychologically unsafe by a few key characteristics. 

For example, psychologically safe teams feel free to be themselves, where individuals feel safe taking risks and speaking their minds in a way that drives conversations forward in a productive and respectful way. 

If employees feel safe being themselves and asking questions, chances are they’ll feel confident enough to take direction over their tasks and contribute ideas to projects that benefit the entire team. Imagine the productivity that could ensue if your teams spent less time worrying about their psychological safety and more time working cohesively to achieve goals!

How do you know if your team is psychologically safe?

When considering the psychological safety of your teams, there are a few key questions you can ask yourself to ‘audit’ the existing state of your teams. For example, you may wonder…

  • Do we feel safe asking questions and proposing ideas?
  • Are we free in taking risks and taking lead on projects?
  • Can we openly discuss conflict(s) or issues among teams?
  • Do we trust one another? 
  • Are we encouraged to ‘think big’ and explore possibilities? 

Alternatively, you may also consider the following questions when it comes to your teams’ relationship with leadership…

  • Do we feel safe voicing our opinions or perspectives to our leaders?
  • Are we able to have candid and open conversations with our managers or C-suite?
  • Are we free to pursue ideas without micromanagement from leadership?
  • Do our leaders trust us and do we trust them?

How can you approach the topic of psychological safety with your team?

While simple questions like those above are a solid starting point, each team is unique, so it’s important that you actually ask your teams how they feel about their working environment!

By discussing the topic of psychological safety with your team, you have a better chance of discovering what they need from you as a leader, and what they need from one another, in order to nurture a psychologically safe team. 

Consider the following...
  • Have one-on-one meetings with your team members and ask them how they feel about inclusivity, trust, transparency and autonomy at work
  • Get your whole team together to share feedback on how everyone can improve their interactions with one another 
  • Provide your team with a survey where they can answer questions about how free they feel to be themselves, admit mistakes, share ideas, initiate candid conversations, ask questions or ask for help, etc 

The goal of talking with your teams is to gather feedback about whether they feel safe being themselves at work. Do they trust you? Do they feel at ease speaking their mind or sharing their perspectives? Do they trust their teammates? 

As a leader, there are a few key things you can do to foster a psychologically safe work environment!

But don’t just take our word for it. If you’d like to nurture truly productive teams of people who feel safe bringing their whole selves to work and contributing their talents to their team, try a few of our top tips. 

Encourage risk-taking 

The only way to truly evolve is to try new things and take creative risks that drive innovation. At the same time, it shouldn’t just be leaders or those in positions of authority that have the room to take risks but, rather, all team members should have the opportunity to try and fail. I call this ‘freedom to fail,’ which means giving teams the confidence and freedom they need to experiment and explore new ideas without fear of ‘what ifs’ or ‘buts.’ 

Reinforce team values (not just goals) 

Each team within an organization typically has its own goals or targets for what it would like to accomplish, but reinforcing goals without reiterating values can cause team members to feel like cogs in a wheel as opposed to valued contributors. 

You can easily reinforce team values by creating a team-specific statement unique to your team or outline the characteristics and mission of what your team sets out to do. By focusing on the values instead of just goals, targets, or KPIs, teams can feel like part of something bigger and may interact more openly, honestly and consistently with one another. 

Admit your own mistakes

No leader is perfect, but when you fail to admit your own mistakes or appear untouchable, it makes it more difficult and sometimes even scary for team members to admit their mistakes. By admitting your mistakes, you’re signalling to your teams that it’s okay to fail, and that you probably make mistakes that you hope they’ll call you out on. 

This approach is less top-down and more vertical, meaning you’re showing that you’re part of the team rather than the ‘boss.’ Even if you are the boss, knowing they can admit to mistakes because you do, helps make your teams feel psychologically safer at work!

Make room for growth 

Not every idea will be a winning one; sometimes, initiatives will fail and projects may not result in the outcomes you were hoping for. However, failing to take a breath to learn from what went wrong, rather than rushing onto the next task and sweeping the failures under the rug, doesn’t actually help your teams grow and evolve. It certainly won’t help them adapt to change! 

It’s important to give your teams the time and space to pause and analyze what went wrong. Was it in the conception phase? Maybe something went awry during the development or execution of an initiative? It could be that the follow-through was poor. Whatever the case may be, your teams likely have a ‘gut feeling’ as to what went wrong, and how it can be fixed. 

By allowing room for assessment and reflection, you’re inevitably making room for growth, and that’s crucial! 

Get comfortable being uncomfortable 

Sometimes, being comfortable with your team means embracing discomfort. It may sound odd, but when you address discomforts and encourage team members to be open with one another about them, there’s a lot of growth and inspiration that can come from it. 

For example, you may be uncomfortable with letting go of control and giving your team the ‘reins’ to try something new, but without embracing that discomfort, you’ll never know whether a crazy idea could just work out beautifully. 

Similarly, some conversations are going to be uncomfortable, but acknowledging the discomfort and giving your team the confidence to tackle it head-on will only result is growth, both personally and professionally!

Ultimately, you want to create an environment of curiosity 

Curiosity is a key element of a productive and psychologically safe team. In environments of curiosity, teams feel more free and comfortable proposing ideas, pursuing and exploring new objectives, and (most importantly) asking questions!

Given asking questions is part of being curious, it makes sense to create, then nurture, this kind of environment for your teams. For example, consider how you word your own questions as a leader or a team member to others on your team. 

Good: “What’s hindering us from completing this project, and how can we work together to remove the roadblocks?”

Bad: “We need to prioritize our time better. When can we have this done by?”

Good: “Your social media management strategy looks great. I’m curious about the times you chose for posting content; do you have data to back this up, and can you share it with us?”

Bad: “Is this a waste of time, or are you going to do more research? I’m not sure there’s value in the posting strategy you have.” 

The key takeaway here is ensuring people feel safe both asking and answering questions. When team members feel that asking a question would put them in an uncomfortable position, or feel uncomfortable providing an answer or solution, it hinders productivity. Instead, carefully consider how you word your own questions before asking them! In doing so, you can show others how they can create an open dialogue and give one another a voice in the workplace. 

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