An Introduction to Psychological Safety
Updated: Aug 19
1) The Secret to High-Performing Teams
Google has created some of the most innovative apps in the world including: G-mail, Docs, Drive, and their wildly popular on-line calendar.
But in 2017, someone asked a great question. Why are some of Google’s work teams so much more innovative and productive than others? The company launched a 2-year research study. Their goal was to discover exactly which traits made their best teams the best. They called it “Project Aristotle.” Researchers used 30+ statistical models to study hundreds of variables. They five common traits of good teams. But four of them had already been explored and exhaustively studied for years. Those four findings weren’t very useful.
But, the 5th finding was something unexpected. This trait wasn’t very well known. In fact, it was difficult to even describe. Somehow, the best teams managed to create a sustainable culture in which every team member felt safe enough to ask challenging questions, discuss controversial ideas, reveal inconvenient truths… and share honest mistakes without fear or blame, shame or punishment.
The researchers on Project Aristotle realized that this was the secret ingredient to high-performing teams. They also discovered that this hard-to-describe concept already had a name.
2) Psychological Safety
In 1965, Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis from MIT coined the term Psychological Safety for the first time. They defined it as,
“…providing an atmosphere where one can take chances without fear and with sufficient protection.” (Source).
Unfortunately, like so many other great humanistic ideas of that era, it was all but forgotten for decades.
In 1999, Dr. Amy Edmondson of Harvard wrote an article that reignited popular interest in Psychological Safety. (Source). Her 2018 book, “The Fearless Organization: Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth” summarized her nearly 20 years of research on it.
Psychological Safety is the belief that you won’t be punished by your organization or shamed by your peers when you speak up in good faith with challenging concerns, difficult questions, inconvenient truths, or honest mistakes.
Author Timothy Clark describes Psychological Safety quite concisely as,
“An environment of rewarded vulnerability.” (Source).
3) Real-World Need
Organizations that don’t invest time and effort to create a culture of Psychological Safety may be losing far more than they realize. And building Psychological Safety may deliver more valuable business results that we often imagine.
A 2017 Gallup poll found that only about 30% of US workers strongly agree that their opinions seem to count. Gallup estimates that by doubling that number to 60%, organizations could:
· reduce turnover by 27%
· increase productivity by 12%
· reduce safety incidents by 40% (Source)
4) Common Myths
Many people who read only brief headlines or superficial descriptions wind up thinking that Psychological Safety means an end to all criticism, disagreement, hurt feelings, and accountability. Unfortunately, these are common and dangerous myths.
These myths often wind up spreading throughout entire organizations. After they’re repeated often enough to be taken for truth, these myths can trigger misguided, but scathing criticisms and outright hostility towards Psychological Safety and those who practice it. Left uncorrected, these myths can leave an organization with a worse work culture than it started with. Most of this misunderstanding is unintentional. But a small percentage unfortunately may not be.
Here are three popular myths about Psychological Safety and the reality for each one.
Myth 1: Psychological Safety means everyone must always be nice
Reality: Edmondson writes, “In fact, there are many polite workplaces that don’t have psychological safety because there’s no candor, and people feel silenced by the enforced politeness. “Unfortunately, at work, nice is often synonymous with not being candid.” (Source). Timothy Clark argues, “Certainly we don’t want to be rude, but a persistent and unreflective emphasis on being nice becomes a layer of denial that stands between us and reality.” (Source). And Mark Snow suggests that safety is different than comfort. And disagreement is different than danger.” (Source).
Myth 2: Psychological Safety means you will never be upset
Reality: When team members share challenging concerns, difficult questions, inconvenient truths, or honest mistakes sooner or later one or more team members will get upset. This is inevitable. A Psychologically Safe team doesn’t avoid ensure no one ever feels upset. On the contrary. A Psychologically Safe team invites healthy challenge, and honest debate. And when feathers get ruffled, or egos bruised, that team will act quickly to clear up any misunderstandings, repair any damage, mediate any apologies, and get agreement that all comments be made in good faith, with transparent, ethical intentions and respect.
Myth 3: Psychological Safety means your opinion will influence every decision
Reality: Almost everyone has been part of a team whose leader refused to take action or make a decision unless all members of the team came to 100% consensus on the issue. This is not Psychological Safety. In fact, this risk-phobic approach to decision-making almost always guarantees that a work team in a competitive 21st century organization will lose momentum, engagement, and valuable opportunities. As Timothy Clark writes, “I’ve seen employees who believed that their organization’s emphasis on psychological safety invested them with veto power…. Psychological Safety should give you voice, but it does not change decision making authority.” (Source).
5) How Does Psychological Safety Work?
For the past 100,000+ years or so, humans have evolved to live, work and play together in groups. If we kept on good terms with our “Tribe” then the other people in it would usually take care of us when we got hurt or sick, or needed help for example in raising kids. Conversely, getting cast out of one’s tribe, often meant isolation, desperation, and death.
Our brains have evolved to become very highly attuned to signals of inclusion or exclusion from our peer group. We constantly scan for those signals in nearly every social interaction we’re in. It’s true, many people in modern, technology-driven cultures have become far more independent (and less tribal) in the past 100 years or so. But our 100,000+ years of tribal hardwiring still hasn’t changed very much.
Today, virtually every one of us, from janitors to CEOs are still very sensitive to signals that our peer group and especially our leaders, send us. And we don’t scan for both positive and negative signals equally. To survive, we evolved to stay on our guard most of the time. (Source).
So, when we sense just a few, or even one signal of exclusion, threat or shame, we tend to ‘Default to Defense.” We play it safe, so our tribe doesn’t exclude us. We defer to our leaders. We agree with what we sense is will of the group. We avoid “rocking the boat.” So when we feel that Psychological Safety is weak or absent, we often decide to stay silent about challenging concerns, difficult questions, inconvenient truths, or honest mistakes.
Psychological Safety is easy to lose, and challenging to create. In one way, it’s similar to many other long-term, worthwhile endeavors like losing weight, getting fit, launching a business or raising a family. Creating Psychological Safety is more an art than a science (Source).
6) Three Ways to Improve Psychological Safety in Your Team
A) Practice it more than you preach it
If you’re a leader in your organization, and want to improve psychological safety in your team, here’s the most trap you’re likely to fall into. Many leaders with the best intentions try to delegate psychological safety to their direct reports without practicing it themselves. Obviously this doesn’t demonstrate psychological safety. It demonstrates hypocrisy.
The more status you hold as a leader, the higher your position in your organizational food chain, the more that you can influence psychological safety throughout your organization by actually practicing it. As Gandhi said, “You must become the change you wish to see in the world.” The single best thing you can do as a leader in your organization to improve psychological safety is to practice it more than you preach it.
B) Run Micro-Experiments
There is no ”recipe” or step-by-step procedure that’s guaranteed to improve Psychological Safety in every organization. It doesn’t exist. Even Amy Edmondson admits that building Psychological Safety is “more magic than science” and that it’s “a climate that we co-create, sometimes in mysterious ways.” (Source).
So, how can you do this? Run micro-experiments. Don’t launch a large, formal, expensive, and risky Psychological Safety “initiative” in your company. Instead, run a series of small, informal, low-cost, low-risk micro experiments. For example, make 1-3 small, but strategic changes to key words and phrases you use. Instead of saying “there was a violation” try saying, ”I saw something I didn’t expect.” Instead of saying, ”We need to run an investigation to find out who is responsible,” try saying, ”We need to lead an After Action Review to find out what happened and why.” (Source).
When one of your micro-experiments doesn’t work out well, talk with a trusted peer. Learn as much as you can from it. Take a break. Then try something different next week. Within a few weeks you will likely discover one or more simple, practical ways of building Psychological Safety that work great for your unique team, culture, and industry. Celebrate those wins with trusted peers! Then brainstorm how to ”level up” that micro experiment into something a bit larger, bolder, and with potentiallybetter results or a wider reach. This is exactly how the lead investigator of one laboratory successfully transformed traditional, punitive investigations into modern, learning-based Event Debriefs in 3 years. (Source).
C) Partner Up With Allies to Expand Your Scope & Get Results
You can run initial micro-experiments on your own. But you’ll soon reach a point where you need help. Get executive support, partners, colleagues, and other allies. After you and your allies discover rack up a few successes and document them, then consider a company-wide initiative. For example, leaders in one company hired a new Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) and wanted to build Psychological Safety starting with that department. So, in professionally-facilitated discussions, they asked staff questions like, “What can we count on each other for?” and “What’s the reputation we aspire to have together?” Those conversations generated such good discussions, insights that six months later, the HR team’s employee engagement scores had risen by nearly 20%. (Source).
In another example, Richard Knowles, a chemical engineer turned manager converted from a traditional top-down, control-based management style to an approach he called “Partner-Centered Leadership. This approach relied heavily on Psychological Safety. Between 1990 and 1995, in the Belle, West Virginia chemical plant where Knowles pioneered Partner-Centered Leadership, injuries and pollution, “had fallen by over 95%, productivity rose by 45% and the earnings rose by 300%”... (Source).
The good news is that creating psychological safety in your organization is probably much easier than you expect. Amy Gallo observes, “A lot of what goes into creating a psychologically safe environment are good management practices — things like: encouraging open communication and actively listening to employees; making sure team members feel supported; and showing appreciation and humility when people do speak up.”(Source).