How to Build Psychological Safety by Changing Key Words and Phrases You Use
Updated: Jun 30
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. (Edmondson, p.xvi).
If you're not yet familiar with Psychological Safety, here’s a good introductory article on it.
1) The Tough Question
While keynoting for a recent safety conference, I asked the audience three questions:
First I asked:
“How many of you know something about Psychological Safety?”
About 150 people were in the audience. Nearly all of them raised their hands. This makes sense, of course. Thanks to decades of work by Dr. Amy Edmondson, popular awareness of Psychological Safety has grown steadily since her groundbreaking 1999 article on it, and especially after her 2018 book, “The Fearless Organization: Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth”.
Then I asked:
“How many of you think your team could benefit from having more Psychological Safety?
Again, nearly 100% of people raised their hands. No surprise there. Google’s “Project Aristotle” revealed that Psychological Safety is the key ingredient in all of the successful teams they studied. Who wouldn’t want their team to be more like the most successful teams at Google?
Finally I asked:
“So how many of you know some specific concrete steps or practical actions you can take to actually increase Psychological Safety within your team right now?”
This time… crickets.
In a room full of about 200 Safety and Human Performance / HOP specialists, only about 10 hands went up. The other 190+ people kept their hands down.
Many of them looked like they had accidentally swallowed a bug.
2) Descriptive but not Prescriptive
Research is often “descriptive, but not prescriptive.” Academic articles and books can excel at explaining complex ideas like Psychological Safety. But they often avoid recommending the kind of specific, concrete actions that many of us want.
In other words, most research on Psychological Safety tells us how it works,
but not how to work it.
That's exactly what you'll get in this article.
You may find it especially helpful if you’re a supervisor in an energy utility, a foreman in a construction company, a reliability engineer in a manufacturing plant, a firefighter, nurse or doctor, an officer on a cargo ship, or a leader in another high-hazard industry, as most of my clients are.
3) Build Your System
Deciding to improve Psychological Safety is a great goal to have.
Here’s the problem with goals.
“You don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” (James Clear)
If you don’t create a system – a set of practical actions and sustainable behaviors that help you inch closer towards your goal every day – you’ll likely never reach your goal.
If your goal was to lose weight, you might use a system of actions like this:
Join the gym closest to your house.
Hire a personal trainer for 6-12 sessions 1-2x per week to help motivate and guide you.
Track how many steps you take each day. Celebrate whenever you hit 10,000+ per day.
Try intermittent fasting for 2 weeks, then assess results.
But Psychological Safety isn’t that simple or tangible. Growing your ability to build Psychological Safety will require you to examine and change some very long-held, deeply-seated patterns of how you think, speak, act and even feel. That’s both complex and abstract.
So what’s the first practical step you can take?
4) Change your language
Some of the key words, phrases, and metaphors you use likely undercut Psychological Safety even if you don’t mean to. For example:
“There was a violation”
Once you label someone’s action as a violation, you’re equating it with a crime. And once you start treating someone as if they’ve committed a crime, you’ve undercut Psychological Safety with them.
“She failed to do X (e.g. wear her hardhat, etc.)”
If you ignore the actions that a person actually took, and why those actions made sense to them at that time, you’ll likely undercut Psychological Safety with that person. Asking someone why they “didn’t” do what you expected nearly always leads to a defensive response. Sidney Dekker calls this a "Counterfactual" – a description of a sequence of events that you wish had happened, but that didn't actually happen. (Sidney Dekker).
“Why didn’t you tell me this before now?!”
If you “shoot the messenger” who brings you some bad news that you need to hear, you’ll undercut Psychological Safety with that person.
Most of us use phrases like this without realizing how badly they undercut Psychological Safety.
So what’s the alternative?
Become more aware of the language you use, and whether it builds or undercuts Psychological Safety. How? Spend 15-20 minutes to brainstorm the 5 most common phrases you tend to use that undercut Psychological Safety. Consider asking a trusted colleague to help identify examples that may be in your "blind spots."
Replace a few of the most damaging phrases you use with more Psychologically Safe alternatives like the examples below.
Ask a trusted colleague to listen to you in meetings, etc. when practical for a week or so. Ask them to give you quick, brief, private feedback on whether you’re actually changing your language and getting the results you intended.
5) Practical Examples
Instead of saying, “There was a violation,” try saying…
“I saw something I didn’t expect.”
You’re still flagging a problem that needs to be fixed, but instead of implying that the other person acted like a criminal, you’re suggesting that both their actions and your expectations may need adjustment. That builds Psychological Safety.
Instead of saying,“She failed to do X (e.g. wear her hardhat, etc.),” try saying...
“What she actually did was… So, what led her to do that?”
Asking someone “Why?” often triggers rationalizations or excuses instead of clarity. But asking "What led you..." helps people to recall all the real-world interactions that nudged them to make the decision they did instead of asking them to essentially explain why they failed. That builds Psychological Safety.
Instead of saying,“Why didn’t you tell me this before now?!” try asking...
“What can I do to make it easier for you to tell me things like this sooner?”
Don’t “shoot the messenger.” Instead, reward the messenger for taking the risk they did in telling you an inconvenient truth that you needed to hear. Then build Psychological Safety by asking their input on how to get critical information like this sooner next time.
That's how to build Psychological Safety by changing some key words and phrases You Use.
When you're ready to learn more, schedule a free, 25-minute discovery call with me.
~ Jake Mazulewicz