Psychological safety in the workplace is the brainchild of Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School. While researching factors that influenced the rate that medication mistakes were made in health care facilities, she noticed that her data pointed toward a seemingly backward conclusion: The "best" health care teams actually made the most mistakes.
In her attempt to determine why this was the case, Edmondson discovered that the teams making the most mistakes were actually communicating and collaborating more than the teams making fewer mistakes. The "better" teams weren't actually making more mistakes; they were simply more comfortable calling attention to mistakes and creating solutions.
This discovery lead Edmondson down a rabbit hole of research in which she developed the "psychological safety" hypothesis. In workplaces with low psychological safety, where people fear negative consequences for their ignorance or incompetence, individuals are less likely to speak up or voice concerns. Edmondson points out that this is a self-protection mechanism that people develop from a young age, but it can have significant consequences in the workplace. In fact, having a work environment that is unconducive to psychological safety could be a recipe for disaster if no one speaks up about flaws in a high-stakes business plan.
On the other hand, building psychological safety in the workplace allows people to worry less about the impression they're giving and give more attention to problem solving and developing creative solutions. Google's own study on effective teamwork, called Project Aristotle, confirmed that Edmondson's research was on the right track by noting that a team's positive attitude toward interpersonal risk-taking played a significant role in that team's success and high performance.
In short, psychological safety has been identified as more important for team performance than the skills that each team member brings to the table. Even the smartest, most talented individuals will not succeed on a team without the ability to speak up and not have to fear humiliation or retaliation.
What Psychological Safety Is and Isn't
It happens to everyone at some point in life: You're in the middle of a meeting and want to ask a question, but you're not comfortable being so forthright in displaying your ignorance. What if the boss thinks you're bad at your job? Maybe you want to offer a criticism about a project that has so far only received praise. Will doing so rock the boat or cause you to be seen as a poor team player?
Having these doubts and concerns points to the fact that you aren't in a psychologically safe working environment. Instead of openly asking questions, giving constructive criticism, pointing out a flaw in the status quo or even offering alternative suggestions or ideas, people in psychologically unsafe workplaces focus more on managing an outward impression of competence. In turn, this impedes growth and creativity.
On the other hand, psychological safety encourages everyone to be open with their thoughts. There's no reason to hold back for fear of sounding "dumb" — all ideas and concerns need to be on the table in order to develop the best way forward. Edmondson also notes that psychological safety actively promotes learning among coworkers, which can only serve to further the success of a business. She uses the analogy of "letting up on the brakes, not the gas" to explain how a safe space can actually lead to business acceleration.
Recognizing and Dealing With Poor Psychological Safety
In order to know whether your employees currently feel poor psychological safety, think about the average meeting that takes place within your company. Do you or your team members belittle certain ideas? Do you ask for feedback and get utter silence? Do employees speak to you privately afterward instead of speaking up in front of the group?
If you're still not sure, conduct an anonymous employee survey asking about their comfort level in different scenarios. Ask if they worry that asking too many questions or the wrong questions could hurt their job security. Do they feel like they can rely on some but not all colleagues for nonjudgmental discussions? You won't know unless you ask, and that's exactly the kind of attitude you want to cultivate among your employees.
Once you've identified some room for improvement, you can follow some of Edmondson's advice in order to build an environment that provides psychological safety, improves team cohesion and ultimately leads to more creative solutions and a happier workplace.
Frame Every Task as a Learning Opportunity
Start by reframing the way you and your team view tasks. Every single task is a learning opportunity, not just "something that has to be done". Right away, this new perspective encourages team members to ask each other questions, to share new insights and to speak up if they find a way to innovate the process.
In addition, be upfront about the fact that the future is unknown. With nothing set in stone, there's no harm in tinkering around with new ideas. By establishing a company culture that encourages exploration in each and every task, you can boost creativity and innovation. Best of all, it's free!
Establish the Need for Interdependence
A psychologically safe workplace has teams with high mutual respect, dependability and interpersonal trust. Be sure to emphasize the need to work together, to help one another with questions or concerns and to follow through with tasks, especially when someone else is relying on the completed work.
In fact, psychological safety makes it easier for employees to be more dependable about completing their work because they're more likely to ask for assistance or admit that they are struggling when they don't fear retaliation. In turn, this reduces procrastination, missed deadlines and overall stress.
Model Curiosity and Mistakes
The actions of the business owner or team leaders serve as a model for team psychological safety. Take care to develop a positive attitude toward idea sharing and to display your own fallibility. Model curiosity by asking a lot of questions, which also helps show that you don't know everything and aren't afraid to ask what some might think is a "silly" question.
If you make a mistake, own up to it and take responsibility for it. Think about what you want your employees to do to improve psychological safety in the workplace and then do that. If you don't "walk the walk", your employees will feel like your requests are insincere, and they won't take them seriously.
Other Steps That Can Help
Your employees may not warm up to the idea of psychological safety overnight. That's to be expected with any change. During the transitional phase, you may need to beef up your conflict mediation strategies to help team members with a rocky history learn to work together with the psychological safety mindset.
In addition, you can provide anonymous channels for suggestions or complaints in order to help the business grow until full psychological safety is embraced. Eventually, you may have to "rip off the Band-Aid" and remove these anonymous channels to completely encourage everyone to speak up when and where it's needed, not when and where it's convenient.
Finally, if a team isn't working well together, consider trying new team configurations in order to see if a different combination of employees yields a safer environment for sharing and collaborating effectively.
Cathy Habas specializes in marketing, customer experiences, and behind-the-scenes management. Cathy has contributed to sites like Business and Finance, Business 2 Community, and Inside Small Business. She served as the managing editor for a small content marketing agency before continuing with her writing career.