Did you know that, according to Gallup’s survey, psychological safety leads to reduced employee turnover and better productivity?
Aside from that, the survey shows that just 3 in 10 US employees agree that their opinions seem to count.
With that in mind, we can understand that many companies struggle to make their employees feel psychologically safe in the workplace, which consequently makes them less productive and satisfied with their jobs.
In this blog post, you’ll find out:
- What psychological safety is and what it’s not,
- What the stages of creating psychological safety are, and
- How leaders can build psychological safety in the workplace.
So, let’s start!
Table of Contents
Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor and author of The Fearless Organization, first introduced the concept of psychological safety in the workplace, and defined it as employees’ belief that they won’t be punished or humiliated for expressing their ideas or concerns, as well as making mistakes.
She conducted the research on correlation between mistake-making and teamwork in hospitals, with a hypothesis that more effective teams make fewer errors. However, the results were exactly the opposite of what she expected ― more effective teams make more mistakes.
Therefore, her new hypothesis was that more effective teams feel free to admit their mistakes.
In her influential book, Edmondson states:
“When people have psychological safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution.”
In other words, psychological safety in the workplace is the absence of fear to speak up with any work-relevant content, so people feel free to:
- Share ideas,
- Give suggestions,
- Take risks,
- Admit mistakes,
- Express concerns, and
- Ask questions.
Edmondson emphasizes that team psychological safety is a group-level phenomenon ― the level of psychological safety in the workplace is a team characteristic, not an individual trait.
Thus, people who work in the same team have similar levels of psychological safety.
In other words, psychological safety in the workplace is a shared belief held by team members that they are safe for interpersonal risk-taking ― an acknowledgment that every interpersonal action we take has a certain level of risk.
Or, as Edmondson points out in her work:
“Psychological safety sets the stage for a more honest, more challenging, more collaborative, and thus also more effective work environment.”
Once we’ve understood what psychological safety is, it’s also important to clarify what it’s not, as this concept may be easily misunderstood.
According to Edmondson, psychological safety is not about being nice or lowering performance standards.
Furthermore, it’s neither a personality factor nor another word for trust.
So, let’s see how psychological safety differs from these concepts.
Team psychological safety doesn’t imply granted support or total agreement, but openness and transparency.
In such an environment, people don’t avoid disagreements and conflicts but solve them with respect and the intention to get the best out of it.
💡 Pumble Pro Tip
Disagreements are a healthy part of team communication and collaboration if you disagree assertively and respectfully. If you’re not sure how to do so, make sure to check out our blog post:
Psychological safety and performance standards (accountability) are separate but interrelated dimensions, which influence the final performance.
In her TEDx talk, Edmondson highlights the importance of both of these dimensions:
“If you’re only talking about people’s accountability for excellence, and not making sure they’re not afraid to talk to each other, then they’re in an anxiety zone.”
Put differently, when psychological safety is low and performance standards are high, people are in the “anxiety zone”, so they are anxious about speaking up.
For high performance, we need both psychological safety and high performance standards. We’re then in the “learning zone”.
To the contrary, when both psychological safety and performance standards are low, the workplace becomes an “apathy zone”, where people choose self-protection over exertion.
Finally, in workplaces with high psychological safety and low-performance standards, people are in the “comfort zone” ― they are collaborative, but not ready to take challenges.
As we already mentioned, psychological safety is a group phenomenon, so it’s not about the person’s extroversion or introversion.
Regardless of personality traits, people freely voice their opinions in a psychologically safe environment.
On the other hand, even extroverts don’t speak up in a workplace where psychological safety is not present.
“Trust is about giving others the benefit of the doubt, and psychological safety relates to whether others give you the benefit of the doubt when, for instance, you have asked for help or admitted a mistake”.
Therefore, unlike psychological safety, trust is experienced between two parties. Aside from that, trust is related to the future, while psychological safety refers to immediate experience.
💡 Pumble Pro Tip
Building trust in virtual teams is critical as it creates a supportive and productive work environment and allows team members to take risks. To learn more about how to build trust in a virtual team, make sure to check out our blog post:
In his book The Four Stages Of Psychological Safety, Timothy R. Clark describes the 4 stages a team progresses through to create a psychologically safe environment.
So, let’s dig deeper into each of them and see their key specifics.
The first step in creating team psychological safety is making people feel included and appreciated.
Not only that, but newcomers should also feel welcomed and accepted by the team.
As the name suggests, the inclusion safety stage means that all members feel they belong to the team, without discrimination regarding any type of condition.
Additionally, to reach the inclusion safety stage, all members should respect the personal differences of each other.
As a leader, you can follow several most effective practices to get your team to the first stage of psychological safety:
- Be approachable: One of the most effective ways to make people feel included in the team is to be available and make time for them. To achieve so, leaders should:
- Organize one-to-one meetings with members,
- Offer feedback, and
- Listen carefully.
- Ask for opinions and feedback: As a leader, it’s your responsibility to be open to feedback. When team members feel safe to share their opinion and give feedback to their leader, the decision-making process is better.
💡 Pumble Pro Tip
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are crucial for a healthy workplace. To learn how to embrace them in work communication, make sure to read our blog post:
Only when people feel they’re included in the team can they progress to the second stage ― learning safety.
This stage implies that team members are free to:
- Ask questions (even if it means asking tough questions),
- Make mistakes, and
- Receive and ask for feedback.
Therefore, in this stage, people become more active than in the previous stage and venture into new learning experiences.
Leaders have a vital role in getting their teams to the learning safety stage. The way they respond to members’ mistakes and their attitude towards learning can significantly help people reach the learning safety stage.
So, here are some of the most powerful ways for getting team members to this stage:
- Set an example: The most effective way for encouraging people to learn is to lead by example. To inspire your team, take interpersonal risks and share your own failures. As a leader, you should spread the willingness to learn and encourage them to get out of their comfort zone.
“Leaders need to model the behaviors that they want to see in the workplace, including:
- Saying ‘I could be wrong, so let’s test that idea’,
- Inviting others to disagree with them,
- Admitting a mistake,
- Saying ‘I don’t know’, and
- Sharing their authentic emotions and whole selves.
Leaders have to lead by example. They can encourage others to speak up with candor in various ways, but they have to lead through action. After leading by example, modeling these behaviors, they then need to reward employees who do the same ― those who follow their lead.”
- Focus on solutions: To make your team reach the second stage of psychological safety, it’s critical to avoid blaming. Instead, focus on solutions. To achieve so as a leader, you should use collaborative language and an assertive communication style. For example, instead of: “Why did you do that?”, it’s better to say something like this: “What can we do differently next time?”
💡 Pumble Pro Tip
To learn more about the most effective leadership communication styles, and how to improve leadership communication, check out our blog post:
Once people acquire new skills and knowledge, they naturally desire to apply them in their work.
In the third stage of psychological safety, people feel safe to make a difference and contribute. As a result, they have more responsibilities and freedom to express their competence, so they become more confident to develop and go the extra mile.
To make people feel safe to contribute, leaders can do the following practices:
- Show gratitude: When leaders express gratitude for all contributions and ideas, people feel safe and motivated to make a difference and contribute to the team.
- Let your team see you understand and value their viewpoints: Leaders should always show they care about team members’ opinions. To do so, they can use active listening techniques, such as paraphrasing, to make sure they understand correctly. Aside from that, be aware of your body language and facial expressions.
The final stage of psychological safety is the Challenger safety stage ― “the license to innovate”.
This stage implies being able to come up with team innovations ― put differently, being able to challenge the current behaviors and ways of working.
Here, team members feel encouraged to think critically and debate constructively, which fosters creativity and improves decision-making.
Therefore, only when reaching the challenger stage will the team members truly be able to bring innovations to the team.
Here are some tips on how to help your team reach the final stage of psychological safety.
- Remind people that it’s safe to speak up: To encourage people to voice their ideas, it’s important to give them permission, so make sure to remind them that you need their honest opinion.
- Encourage creativity: As a leader, you should always appreciate creative ideas no matter if they work.
Now that you’re familiar with each of the psychological safety stages and the best ways for reaching them, it’s a good moment to discuss the most popular techniques for creating a psychologically safe environment — icebreakers and psychological safety surveys — in more detail.
As one of the most effective techniques for creating psychological safety, using icebreakers is a great way to help people move through the four stages of psychological safety.
Simply put, teams use icebreakers in the first five minutes of meetings to encourage team members to speak up and connect with each other.
As the name implies, this way, people break the ice and feel more comfortable presenting their ideas or concerns.
As such, this psychological safety technique is effective for both virtual and onsite teams.
So, here are some examples of using icebreakers:
- What’s the weather like?
- Where do you want to go on holiday?
- Two truths and a lie: Each team member lists three things about themselves ― one is a lie, and two are true.
A more direct way for creating and maintaining team psychological safety is to conduct surveys, which can give you valuable insights into the current state of psychological safety in the team.
Edmondson lists 7 survey items, out of which, 3 indicate the presence of psychological safety, and 4 items are expressed negatively (marked with “R” ― “reversed score”).
She suggests using a 7 or 5-point Likert scale ― from strongly agree to strongly disagree.
So, let’s take a look at the items:
- If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you. (R)
- Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
- People on this team sometimes reject others for being different. (R)
- It is safe to take a risk on this team.
- It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help. (R)
- No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.
Considering Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety is the most important need, immediately after physiological needs such as food and water.
Having in mind that security of employment is one of the basic human needs, we can better understand the employees’ fear of expressing their ideas and concerns in the workplace.
Furthermore, in a psychologically unsafe work environment, people hesitate to speak up with their points of view, as they feel fear of being shamed or degraded.
So, let’s dig deeper into the key reasons why psychological safety in the workplace is important for both employees and companies.
When psychological safety is present at work, it’s easier to get employees motivated and engaged. In other words, when people feel free to express their ideas and concerns, they are more motivated to contribute and feel appreciated.
On the other hand, in a psychologically unsafe work environment, people hesitate to express themselves, which harms their motivation and inspiration.
Inclusive workplace culture has been more important than ever for maintaining effective team collaboration and team harmony.
Simply put, inclusivity refers to the feeling of belonging, which enhances group cohesion and makes individuals feel respected.
Therefore, in psychologically safe workplaces, people feel more included, which improves both employee experience and team performance.
In her book, Edmondson points out that people unconsciously tend to discount the future, which she defines as underweighting the more important issue and overweighting the importance of the manager’s response.
In other words, employees often hesitate to express their opinion at the cost of future outcomes, as they believe it might harm their interpersonal relationships and employment security.
This is one of the key reasons why companies have to maintain a psychologically safe environment, so all employees can express themselves.
As such, this work environment encourages people to voice their opinions and concerns, which consequently leads to more perspectives being considered when making critical decisions.
As psychological safety improves employee engagement and leads to better decision-making, it also boosts team performance.
Moreover, according to Edmondson, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Schein highlights that psychological safety helps people focus on their shared goals rather than self-protection.
As a result, they manage to achieve more and contribute to the overall team performance.
Our contributor, Mark Graben, highlights that psychological safety contributes to the learning culture:
“With higher levels of psychological safety, a company is more likely to have a robust culture of learning from mistakes. In a high psychological safety environment, the focus is on learning from mistakes and preventing them instead of being punitive. When leaders punish mistakes, employees just get better at hiding them — and that’s not a path to success.”
Therefore, in psychologically safe teams, people have a positive attitude towards mistakes and see them as growth opportunities.
As psychological safety fosters a learning culture, it contributes to both employees’ growth and overall team productivity.
All things considered, psychological safety is critical for both employee satisfaction and engagement, as well as overall team collaboration and performance.
Many teams make a mistake by underestimating psychological safety and focusing on team accountability. However, to achieve high performance, teams need both a high level of psychological safety and accountability.
Thus, team leaders have a responsibility to create and maintain a psychologically safe environment, where all members can freely express their opinions, ideas, and concerns and ask questions.
✉️ What about your team? Do team members feel free to speak up and learn from their mistakes? What would you like to change in your team regarding psychological safety?
Let us know at email@example.com and we may include your answers in this or future posts.