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

Updated: Aug 24

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 prod