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So, what is this psychological safety everyone is talking about?

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

Guest Blogger: David Howell


Surely, it’s something that has been around for years and now leadership experts and the politically correct are making a meal of it. We have all sat in meetings or been part of a briefing and had a good laugh at each other’s expense, made fun of situations or peoples mistakes or misfortunes.

Isn’t this what this all about? I think that they call it ‘banter’ or ‘bants’!

No, it certainly is not! You could not be further from the truth…

I am also sure that if you went into any organisation or team and ask them the following questions you may be somewhat shocked at the responses that you were to receive,

‘do you feel psychologically safe at work?’

Most people would probably look at you blankly or just say ‘of course!’, probably not having a true understanding or perspective of what it actually meant and, most importantly, how it is actually created.

Another searching question that could easily be asked of leaders or managers would be,

‘how do you ensure that a psychologically safe environment is developed and maintained in your team?’

Following a certain amount of head scratching and a few umms and arhhs they would probably retort that it ‘just happens’ or ‘we don’t have a problem as we all get on fine’.

To help with this conundrum I have conducted some research to help shed some light on its origins, what it is and how it can be developed. With the assistance of some well-informed voices in this specific area of human interaction I will hopefully provide you with a little enlightenment.

Let us look at this in a little more detail and attempt to put some science and understanding around the subject of psychological safety.

Like most things the best place to start is at the beginning and arguably that is with the first definition coined by Amy Edmundson (The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth), a professor in organisational behavioural science at Harvard Business School back in 1999. She introduced the notion of psychological safety when researching teams and defined it as,

“a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

Amy went on to say that it was a belief that ‘’one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes."

Since then, she has observed how companies with a trusting workplace perform better. Psychological safety isn’t about being nice, she says, ‘It’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other’. Amy argues that this kind of organisational culture is increasingly important in the modern economy.

Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ and ‘‘It describes a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

Another definition recently coined by Timothy R. Clark in his book ‘The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety’ 2020, states that,

‘Psychological safety is a condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute and (4) safe to challenge the status quo – all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way’

There seems to be a theme developing here!

The importance of psychological safety in teams was further endorsed in 2014 by Julia Rozovsky. Julia was part of Project Aristotle which was a three-year study conducted by Google to understand what factors created the perfect team. The team came up with five important factors when creating a perfect team with the top component being psychological safety. The other four components were:

· Dependability – can we count on one another to do high quality work on time?

· Structure and Clarity – Are goals, roles and execution plans on our team clear?

· Meaning of Work – Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?

· Impact of Work – Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

At the end of these three years the team began sharing their findings with select groups of Google’s 51,000 employees. By then, they had been collecting surveys, conducting interviews and analysing statistics but as yet they hadn’t figured out how to make psychological safety easy, but they hoped that by publicising their research within Google would prompt employees to come up with some ideas of their own.

One group of employees involved in the study began speaking openly and shared some of their quite significant health issues. There was nothing in the survey that instructed staff to share illnesses amongst each other. There was nothing in Project Aristotle’s research that said that getting people to open up about their struggles was critical to discussing a group’s norms. But for this one particular group it made sense that psychological safety and emotional conversations were related. The behaviours that create psychological safety — conversational turn-taking and empathy — were seen as part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond. And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else. In fact, they sometimes matter more.

‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well. But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused solely on efficiency.

The paradox, of course, is that Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs, emotional intelligence.

The fact that these insights aren’t wholly original doesn’t mean Google’s contributions aren’t valuable. In fact, in some ways, the ‘‘employee performance optimization’’ movement has given us a method for talking about our insecurities, fears and aspirations in more constructive ways. It also has given us the tools to quickly teach lessons that once took managers decades to absorb. Google, in other words, in its race to build the perfect team, has perhaps unintentionally demonstrated the usefulness of imperfection and done what Silicon Valley does best: figure out how to create psychological safety faster, better and in more productive ways.

‘‘Just having data that proves to people that these things are worth paying attention to sometimes is the most important step in getting them to actually pay attention,’’ Rozovsky told me. ‘‘Don’t underestimate the power of giving people a common platform and operating language.’’

The full article outlined in the New York Times can be found via the link below:

On a personal note, whilst working with the newly formed National Police Air Service back in 2016 they attempted to promote a Civil Aviation Authority initiative called a ‘Just Culture’.

The definition of a just culture was,

‘A culture in which front-line operators or other persons are not punished for actions, omissions or decisions taken by them that are commensurate with their experience and training, but in which gross negligence, willful violations and destructive acts are not tolerated’.

That all seems very fair and a great way to spread learning across an organisation. It does however depend on one critical element and that is psychological safety. The underlying ethos behind this initiative was honourable with staff being encouraged to be open and to share those experiences where others could ultimately learn from, preventing others making similar mistakes. It could also lead to the positive change of a working practice in favour of a more safety conscious one, better practice.

There was one very unfortunate issue in that the overriding organisational culture was toxic. Early reports from pilots resulted in them being investigated with a view to either prosecution or disciplinary action. So, what impression did that give to others watching from the sidelines? You guessed it, staff were more guarded and reticent to report any minor discretion, even refraining to report any issue and driving a more secretive and insular culture. Pilots, who relied on their licenses to work and earn a wage were not going to put that at risk if a psychologically safe environment was not present. An opportunity missed…

It also proves that psychological safety can so easily broken if sensitivity and emotional intelligence, on the part of everyone involved, is not understood and respected. In fact, it will not even grow if a toxic culture is prevalent or the leader is a bully. Silence will prevail. This quote from Tim McClure says it all,

‘The biggest concern for any organisation should be when their most passionate people become quiet’

This unfortunately is exactly what happened with the National Police Air Service.

It’s all well and good knowing what psychological safety is but how do you actually create it?

I was fortunate enough to watch and listen to Colin D Ellis (Culture Fix) explain a great way to create psychological safety, by formulating and drawing up a team agreement. The agreement is based on four principles that require discussion and agreement as a team.

Those four areas are:

1. Fallibility

2. Accountability

3. Vulnerability

4. Accessibility

By discussing these key areas openly and formulating an agreement presents the team with that initial starting point, a common language and the ability to hold each other accountable for their actions and behaviours. Too often I have seen so many ‘loose’ agreements left open to conjecture and interpretation which can cause more harm than good even when the beliefs are held in good faith. Removing that vague ‘woolly’ verbal understanding provides the firm foundations for something more constructive which has longevity and the ability to develop further.

After reading a recent article (link below), posted on LinkedIn by Shane Snow, on this very subject he gave a great analogy whereby a good fitness trainer will help you to exercise safely and to grow your muscles. You are likely to feel some discomfort but importantly you will remain safe. It is the same for psychological safety in that you can expect some degree of discomfort in order to grow. If well handled by the leader you will be protected against harm but not discomfort as that is where creativity and growth occur. The graphic below outlines this point beautifully.

Simon Snow goes on to state that psychological safety is trust amongst a group and the larger the group the harder it is to maintain. That all important trust is earned by exhibiting three things – ability, integrity and benevolence. Interestingly Simon goes onto say that psychological safety is actually ‘a commitment to treating each other charitably’.

In a group where everyone treats each other charitably, the following will happen:

  1. If you make a mistake, it won’t be held against you personally.

  2. If something is wrong, you can bring it up without it being used against you.

  3. It won’t matter where ideas come from as long as they help the team.

  4. If you need help, you can ask for it without people being shitty about it.

  5. When you change your mind, people will applaud your intellectual humility rather than use it against you.

  6. When you make a decision, you’ll weigh what’s going to be the best for the whole team - and the individuals on it - over what’s best for you.

  7. You’ll interpret other people’s actions in the best light, too.

In other words, if you want a group to have psychological safety, the first thing you need to do is to get people to care about each other.

After spending some time looking into the obvious benefits of creating a psychological safe environment, I am personally convinced that there is an underlying need for emotional intelligence on the part of all participants. There is also a requirement for leaders to handle this with care and understanding, continually monitoring and not taking anything for granted.

I hope that this brief look at psychological safety has set a seed of interest within you and a heightened awareness for the next time that you find yourself in a team meeting, be it in the position of leader or attendee. Watch and listen for the signs that a psychologically safe environment is being created.


David Howell - Conduct Change Advisory Board member.

The reason for being so passionate and interested in the subjects of teamwork, culture and leadership is because, in my opinion, if you get these three things right then you naturally eliminate bullying. Psychologically safe and well led organisations, which promote inclusive cultures, bring out the very best in people. When an organisation does get it right employee wellbeing is increased , there is a reduction in absenteeism; creativity and productivity then become a positive by-product.

Get the teamwork, leadership and culture right and then watch the magic happen.

Conduct Change was founded in 2019 with the purpose of changing behaviour in workplaces to create more courageous and compassionate approaches to prevent workplace bullying. The founder, Nicki Eyre, has been through her own workplace bullying experience during her career and recognises the scale of the problem at both an organisational and individual level.

We recognise that workplace bullying is a sensitive topic for many businesses.  If you are concerned that you may have a bullying issue in your workplace, or just want help in opening up the conversations, we are here to advise. We offer a free and confidential discussion to understand the issues and explain what options are available for you.

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