WTF   //   March 14, 2023

WTF is psychological safety?

It can be hard to speak up at work about something you believe isn’t going in the right direction. What if others don’t agree? What if you’re shut down immediately? Or, what if your boss doesn’t go to you for help with future projects? If you’re concerned that these reactions are a possibility, there’s a chance that there is no psychological safety present.

Psychological safety is a term we’ve been increasingly hearing in conversations about the workplace. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, began researching the topic two decades ago, and coined the phrase “team psychological safety.” It’s a term that has been dormant in the business world for some time, but lately that’s been changing. And it’s now being dropped into regular conversations around the workplace. It’s become “quite popular and recognized as important,” added Edmondson.

But, what is psychological safety, really? How do you know if your workplace has it without putting yourself out on a limb? 

We spoke to Edmondson and other workplace experts to explore what the signs are that your job has psychological safety and what the impact is if it isn’t there. 

What is psychological safety?

Edmondson describes it simply: “It’s felt permission for candor.”

That means that people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas, without fear that they will be judged or treated unfairly. However, one key aspect is that psychological safety isn’t created from one individual. It’s a shared belief held by several members of a team, department, or branch of the organization that it’s okay to take risks, express ideas and concerns, ask questions, and to admit mistakes. 

“One important belief that is shared between a group is whether or not it feels safe, or even plausible or expected, to speak up candidly, to ask for help, to admit a mistake, to offer a dissenting view,” said Edmondson. “Psychological safety describes an environment where all of those highly work-relevant behaviors feel possible.”

“When we have permission for candor, I guarantee there will be times when we disagree or when things don’t work out perfectly.”
Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School professor.

Ludmila Praslova, psychology professor, says that some people have run with the concept of psychological safety and wrongly believe that it guarantees there will be no conflict.

“Sometimes, it’s quite the opposite,” said Edmondson. “When we have permission for candor, I guarantee there will be times when we disagree or when things don’t work out perfectly.”

In those situations, they become learning opportunities and never a time where someone is put down.

How do you know there is psychological safety?

Edmondson says it’s helpful to see where there is a healthy ratio of bad news to good news, questions to statements, and reports of success to reports of failure. 

However, for those who are unsure, Edmondson has a short questionnaire on her website that asks seven questions where you can choose strongly disagree to strongly agree:

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is not held against you.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes accept others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It isn’t difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized. 

Praslova points out that everyone has different interpretations of psychological safety, which are largely impacted depending on someone’s history of whether or not they were able to speak honestly with repercussions. However, if one person doesn’t have psychological safety in a group, then that means you don’t have psychological safety overall.

Although the idea of it might be frightening at first, Edmondson says to not just automatically assume your voice isn’t welcome, but instead try it out. 

“Take that micro risk of sticking up with a different perspective, or asking for help, or pointing out a concern, and see what happens,” said Edmondson. “More often than not, the response will be appreciated.” 

Why is psychological safety important for the workplace?

“Theoretically, organizations should want to know when something is not going right so that they can catch it and correct it,” said Praslova. “When people are not speaking up, problems fester. That’s not what you want.”

Besides that, innovation depends upon it.

“We need people to take risks, we need people to try new things,” said Edmondson. “Workers are less likely to do that if they just don’t feel it’s possible.”

“Theoretically, organizations should want to know when something is not going right so that they can catch it and correct it. When people are not speaking up, problems fester. That’s not what you want.”
Ludmila Praslova, psychology professor.

Psychological safety leads to team members feeling more engaged and motivated. Employees know that they can share their questions and concerns in a safe environment without fear of retribution. Because of that, the brainstorm sessions are that much better. People feel like their opinions are valid and matter, and the idea of a “stupid question” is thrown out the door. It ends up fostering a culture of continuous learning and improvement. 

“It’s not a nice to have,” said Edmondson. “My argument is that the performance in an uncertain world depends upon psychological safety. If you’re not hearing from people, you’re at risk of underperformance of all kinds.”

Additionally, if people don’t feel psychologically safe, they will ultimately leave for a company where they do.

“You will lose talent, which is costly,” said Praslova. “The most innovative people are really not going to work in that climate.”

How do you create psychological safety?

It doesn’t happen overnight, especially if the work environment has deep-rooted issues around not having psychological safety. 

“People are naturally and understandably cautious,” said Edmondson. “The problem is being cautious may protect you, but it can harm the team. It protects you because no one got mad at you or disagreed with you, but if the team does not hear from you, it could be harming the team. I guarantee that each person has an observation that someone else noticed or no one else thought of.”

However, Edmondson says what goes into creating a psychologically safe environment is the same thing that goes into good management practices. That includes establishing clear norms and expectations, encouraging open communication, actively listening to employees, supporting employees, and so on. 

Besides that, it’s helpful to lead by example. If managers are open and honest in their communication, it will make it that much easier for everyone else.