Updated: Nov 20
In my years of consulting, I've observed that managers and leaders constantly seek ways to enhance team performance and increase productivity. However, in pursuing these goals, they may overlook an essential aspect - psychological safety.
Psychological safety is crucial for any team's success as it allows team members to feel comfortable expressing their ideas, sharing their opinions, and taking risks without fear of repercussions. When team members feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to collaborate, innovate, and contribute to the team's overall success.
Psychological safety, popularized by Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organization, refers to psychological safety as an environment where team members feel secure enough to take interpersonal risks, speak up, and express their ideas without fearing any negative consequences.
Additionally, Timothy Clark, a leadership expert and author of The Four Stages of Psychological Safety, suggests that we can consider psychological safety as a culture of rewarded vulnerability. Dr. Clark shares that psychological safety is the key to mending broken interactions and creating cultures of rewarded vulnerability in every social setting.
Creating a workplace culture that supports collaboration, creativity, and employee well-being is crucial for managers, leaders, and teams. To achieve this, it is essential to understand and actively promote psychological safety.
Understanding Psychological Safety
Psychological safety isn't a new topic or concept. It's been around in the psychological and organizational sciences for a long time.
In 1943, Abraham Maslow discussed the emergence of love, affection, and belongingness needs when physiological and safety needs are satisfied. In the 1960s, Schein and Bennis introduced the term "psychological safety" and emphasized that people do not want to be punished for being human. Amy Edmondson created an academic measure of psychological safety in the late 1990s and has since written extensively about it including multiple books. Google's Project Aristotle in the early 2010s revealed psychological safety as the key predictor of high performance, enabling teammates to be more authentic and take risks. Timothy Clark's book, published in the early 2020s, aimed to help organizations apply the academic theory of psychological safety practically. In 2023, experts in team leadership and development Dianne Nilsen and Gordon Curphy, added to the body of knowledge and emphasized the importance of psychological safety in creating high-performance teams in the workplace.
According to Amy Edmondson, psychological safety refers to a shared belief among team members that the team is a safe place for interpersonal risk-taking. This means team members should feel at ease when sharing their thoughts, asking questions, and making suggestions without fearing criticism or punishment. This creates a conducive environment for learning and innovation, where individuals can freely express themselves and their ideas.
Timothy Clark emphasizes that psychological safety is not about avoiding conflict but creating a space to address conflicts constructively. He also highlights the importance of leaders modeling vulnerability and openness. According to him, creating a culture that rewards vulnerability requires modeling and rewarding acts of vulnerability. Simply rewarding others for their acts of vulnerability is not enough. Leaders must be willing to be vulnerable themselves, especially if they are in the spotlight. However, even if they are not, engaging in acts of vulnerability will encourage others to do the same and help create a safe environment.
Dianne Nilsen and Gordon Curphy
Psychological safety is an essential aspect of team dynamics. According to Nilsen and Curphy, psychological safety can be observed when team members feel comfortable openly disagreeing, asking questions, presenting minority viewpoints, and owning up to mistakes without fear of retribution. Studies have shown that psychological safety has a significant impact on team performance. When psychological safety is low, team members are unlikely to admit mistakes or raise concerns, which leads to repeated mistakes, wasted resources, bad decisions, and suboptimal performance. Therefore, teams must foster an environment of psychological safety to encourage open communication and improve performance.
What does Psychological Safety mean?
In a recently published McKinsey article, they share that psychological safety means feeling free to voice opinions without fear of negative consequences.
Creating psychological safety in a workplace fosters an environment where individuals feel comfortable expressing innovative ideas without worrying about personal criticism or offending. This environment encourages openness when providing feedback, even if it involves negative feedback directed towards leaders. It allows room for positive and developmental feedback and highlights areas where improvements or changes are necessary.
It is perfectly fine to acknowledge and take responsibility for one's mistakes, to show vulnerability, and to demonstrate courage by respectfully speaking up against those in positions of power. Psychological safety in the workplace or home fosters a stronger, more innovative community.
Why is Psychological Safety Important?
An extensive survey conducted by McKinsey found that 89% of employees believe that psychological safety is crucial in the workplace. It is worth noting that psychological safety significantly impacts team effectiveness, employee learning, and retention, and, most importantly, it leads to better decisions and improved performance.
Psychological safety is a crucial predictor of team performance, productivity, quality, safety, creativity, innovation, and overall health outcomes. Social psychologists and neuroscientists have confirmed this.
Nilsen and Curphy have conducted extensive work on organizational behavior, and their findings confirm the significant role of Psychological Safety. According to their work with thousands of teams at organizations of all shapes and sizes, adding Psychological Safety to teams where all members share a common understanding of the team's objectives and vision, believe in its mission, have clearly defined roles and requisite skills, follow norms that promote collaboration and accountability, have access to necessary resources, and can safely challenge each other while prioritizing performance have a higher propensity for becoming a high-performing team.
How do we add Psychological Safety to the culture?
Organizations and teams must start at the top and all levels to add psychological safety to their culture. As Nilsen and Curphy point out, teambuilding events and golf outings won't do the trick. It must be an intentional action with accountability and support systems to remove those who create unsafe environments.
According to Amy Edmondson, research has demonstrated that psychological safety levels can differ among teams within a company. This indicates that creating psychological safety throughout an organization is a challenging task. However, there is a silver lining. Regardless of where you work, you can foster psychological safety within your team as a leader. Leaders greatly influence a team's psychological safety by setting the tone for security.
Building psychological safety within a team requires a suitable climate, mindsets, and behaviors. Influential leaders act as catalysts and empower other team members to create a safe environment. Even those without formal authority can help cultivate psychological safety by modeling the expected behaviors and reinforcing them to the rest of the team.
It is crucial to construct psychological safety at the team level, and the organizational culture should have supportive mechanisms in place from the top and at all levels of the organization. Training employees and leaders and allowing open dialogue to encourage authenticity and vulnerability is also essential. As a leader, it is vital to humbly listen without being defensive.
Practical Strategies for Managers and Leaders
Encourage Open Communication:
Amy Edmondson emphasizes the significance of open communication for creating psychological safety. Encourage team members to express their opinions authentically, be vulnerable by asking questions, and have the courage to share their experiences. She adds that executives must set the tone for open communication by actively encouraging dialogue, inviting feedback, and demonstrating receptivity to diverse perspectives.
Timothy Clark advises leaders to actively listen and respond non-defensively to feedback. This sets a positive example and helps build trust within the team. He also emphasizes the importance of leaders modeling vulnerability. Leaders who share their challenges and uncertainties create an atmosphere where others feel comfortable doing the same.
Acknowledge Mistakes and Learn from Failure:
Amy Edmondson notes that being vulnerable and admitting mistakes fosters a culture of continuous improvement. When leaders practice vulnerability and acknowledge their errors, it creates a norm that learning from failure is not only accepted but celebrated. When leaders openly recognize and learn from mistakes, it communicates that errors are viewed as opportunities for growth.
Timothy Clark emphasizes the value of leaders framing mistakes as valuable learning experiences, reinforcing that failure is a natural part of growth and learning. By doing so, leaders inspire resilience and personal development within the organization.
Create an inclusive environment where diverse perspectives are valued. Amy Edmondson suggests that a variety of viewpoints can enhance problem-solving and decision-making. Establishing formal feedback mechanisms is crucial for executives to gauge the organization's pulse. Develop a system of regular check-ins, surveys, or town hall meetings where employees can courageously express their concerns and ideas without fear of repercussions.
Timothy Clark adds that leaders should humbly listen and actively seek input from all team members, ensuring that everyone feels heard and included. He advocates for 360-degree feedback processes, allowing leaders to receive insights from all levels of the organization. This fosters a culture of continuous improvement and demonstrates a commitment to listening.
Invest in Leadership Development:
According to McKinsey's research, investing in leadership development across all levels of an organization fosters leadership behaviors that encourage psychological safety. Employees who reported significant investment in leadership development by their organizations were 64 percent more likely to consider senior leaders more inclusive.
Executive leaders bear the responsibility of nurturing the next generation of leaders. Amy Edmondson highlights the need for leadership development programs that explicitly address the creation of psychological safety.
Timothy Clark recommends training programs that equip leaders with the skills to manage conflict constructively, fostering an environment where differing opinions are seen as assets rather than obstacles.
Still not sure?
The following examples demonstrate how psychological safety positively impacts patient outcomes, organizational effectiveness, and complex social challenges in healthcare and non-profit organizations.
Reducing Medical Errors Through Open Communication:
Teamwork and clear communication are critical in healthcare to prevent medical errors. Psychological safety plays a crucial role in achieving this goal. In an expansive healthcare system in Wisconsin, a nurse noticed a potential error in the medication dosage prescribed by a physician. The nurse felt empowered to voice concerns without fear of retribution because of the psychologically safe environment. This open communication allowed the healthcare team to collaborate and correct the prescription before it reached the patient. By fostering psychological safety, healthcare organizations can significantly reduce the risk of adverse events and improve patient safety.
Improving Patient Outcomes Through Team Collaboration:
Psychological safety is crucial in surgical teams where precise coordination is essential. When team members, including surgeons, nurses, and anesthesiologists, feel psychologically safe, they become comfortable expressing their concerns or suggesting alternative approaches during a procedure. This collaborative approach enhances the team's ability to adapt to unexpected challenges, ultimately improving patient outcomes. For instance, a nurse who noticed a potential issue with sterilization could immediately communicate the concern in a psychologically safe environment, leading to prompt resolution and preventing complications.
Innovative Solutions to Social Challenges:
Non-profit organizations often tackle complex social issues that require creative and innovative solutions. A psychologically safe environment is crucial to achieve this as it enables team members to share unconventional ideas without fear of judgment. For instance, a non-profit organization focused on education dealing with low student engagement can benefit from a psychologically safe culture. This culture allows employees to propose experimental teaching methods or unconventional outreach strategies without criticism. Such openness can lead to the implementing of innovative programs that positively impact student engagement and academic success.
Supporting Mental Health Initiatives:
Maintaining psychological safety is crucial for clients and staff in a non-profit organization focusing on mental health. Team members may encounter challenging situations that require a supportive and non-judgmental environment. For instance, a counselor in a complicated case may need to discuss their emotional challenges or seek guidance from a colleague. In a culture that prioritizes psychological safety, employees can openly share their experiences without fear of stigma, which fosters a supportive community within the organization. This, in turn, improves the overall well-being of both staff and clients.
Psychological safety is not only a managerial responsibility but also a leadership imperative. Leaders at the highest level can shape a workplace culture that attracts and retains top talent and drives innovation and resilience by embracing the principles advocated by experts like Amy Edmondson, Timothy Clark, and others.
The strategic investment in psychological safety is an investment in the long-term success and sustainability of the organization. As leaders and executives champion open communication, celebrate learning from failure, and invest in leadership development, they create a workplace where employees feel valued, heard, and empowered to contribute their best.
I highly recommend you pick up a copy of my book Where Leadership Begins, which will help you develop a psychologically safe culture. In the book, you will be guided through Choice Theory and the five choices leaders make to be effective: choosing to be self-aware, choosing to be authentic, choosing to be vulnerable, choosing to be humble, and choosing to be courageous. These personal choices as a leader will help you develop a psychologically safe team and workplace.
Clark, T. R. (2020). The Complete Guide to Psychological Safety. Leader Factor. https://www.leaderfactor.com/resources/what-is-psychological-safety
Curphy, G. & Nilsen, D. (2022, May). It's Better to Be Psychologically Safe Than Sorry. Talent Quarterly. https://www.talent-quarterly.com/its-better-to-be-psychologically-safe-than-sorry
McKinsey & Company Articles "Psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development," February 11, 2021, Aaron De Smet, Kim Rubenstein, Gunnar Schrah, and Mike Vierow. https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/psychological-safety-and-the-critical-role-of-leadership-development
"What is psychological safety?," July 17, 2023, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/mckinsey-explainers/what-is-psychological-safety
"Is it safe? In times of anxiety, depression, fear, and stress, how can companies create the psychological safety that employees need?" No date, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/leadership/five-fifty-is-it-safe