• Paul Harrison, Senior Consultant |
6 min read

Psychological Safety, put simply, is a belief that it is safe to take interpersonal risks. It happens when we weigh the upsides and downsides of being open with other people and conclude that the gain is (or isn’t) worth the pain. These calculations of interpersonal risk usually happen very quickly, often ‘in the moment’ when an opportunity arises to say or do something.

Many of us will recognise feeling the reality of this cognitive process e.g. being in a meeting and conducting an internal debate about whether ‘now’ is the right time to say something, ask a question, make a challenge, put forward a new idea….or perhaps leaving a meeting and reflecting afterwards: conducting our own internal critique of someone else’s contribution and setting it against our own alternative, unspoken, suggestion.

Much has been written and said about Psychological Safety in the workplace in recent times (A simple Google search using the term ‘psychological safety in the workplace’ produced 81.5k results on 18 June 2021.), some of it focuses on the negative e.g. ‘calling out’ bad behaviour; escalating grievances; the importance of whistle-blowing procedures, and so on.

But the bulk of the academic research (A good starting point for an overview of the scientific literature on Psychological Safety is this systematic review from 2017 which summarises the findings of 83 articles including 78 empirical studies: Newman, A., Donahue, R., Eva, N. (2017). Psychological Safety: A systematic review of the literature. Human Resource Management Review. Vol 27(3), p521-535. DOI: 10.1016/j.hrmr.2017.01.001.) on Psychological Safety is more concerned with the positive: how it helps to enable team-work, innovation, creativity, engagement, job satisfaction and high-performance, for example. These are crucial assets of successful organisations and there is evidence that nurturing Psychological Safety is a key lever in building and protecting these assets (The most often quoted example of this is Google’s ‘Project Aristotle’ which found that a high level of Psychological Safety was the leading indicator of the most successful teams in their workplace. There are lots of reports of Project Aristotle on the internet. One good summary example can be found at the following link: re:Work (rework.withgoogle.com)).

In this way, Psychological Safety performs an important role in facilitating inclusion in the work place and in helping to reap the benefits of diverse teams – this is especially important in organisations where collaboration and knowledge sharing are fundamental to business operations: how can the different perspectives, ideas and creativity of all team members be brought to bear on a client problem if some people feel unsafe to speak up?

Leadership behaviours can be demonstrated by people at all levels in an organisation; but there is a particularly important role to be played by designated Leaders and Managers – they occupy nominated positions in organisations and what they say and do really matters. Their role in nurturing and protecting Psychological Safety is therefore crucially important.

In my own research project (If anyone would like to see my research article ‘Supported. Safe. Satisfied? The Role of Team Psychological Safety’ (Wang, W., Harrison, P.(2017)), contact me at paul.harrison@kpmg.co.uk and I’ll send you a copy.), completed as part of my MSc in Occupational Psychology (2017), I explored the role of Psychological Safety in the relationship between perceived manager/leader behaviour (supportive and unsupportive) and job satisfaction experienced by team members (it is well established that job satisfaction underpins lots of good outcomes for individuals and organisations). The results suggested that a significant portion of the positive influence of good manager/leader behaviour on levels of job satisfaction were attributable to team Psychological Safety levels (a ‘mediation’ effect). The results also suggested that the damaging effect of poor manager/leader behaviour on job satisfaction was mitigated by team Psychological Safety, to the point where damage was eliminated when team Psychological Safety levels were highest (a ‘moderation’ effect).

Professor Amy Edmondson is widely regarded as one of the most important voices in this area: it was her seminal work in the 1990s that helped define and measure Psychological Safety in the workplace and a plethora of research since then can be traced back to her work. The good news is that you don’t have to read hundreds of research studies to get up to speed with all this. Edmondson distilled all the research along with case studies and practical tips for building Psychological Safety in organisations in her recently published book: ‘The Fearless Organisation: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation & Growth’ (Wiley, 2019).

In the book, Edmondson provides a ‘Leader’s Toolkit for building Psychological Safety’. The toolkit sets out the steps for achieving three key outcomes:

Shared expectation & meaning

This includes setting expectations about project failure, uncertainty and interdependence to clarify the need for active participation and voice.

Confidence that voice is welcome

This requires leaders to show humility and acknowledge gaps, creating the safe space for others to contribute.

Orientation toward continuous learning

This means signalling appreciation by listening, acknowledging and thanking; de-stigmatising failure by looking forward and offering help. It also means sanctioning clear violations i.e. behaviours which increase the risks of being open (e.g. shaming, embarrassing, closing down, excluding other).

Edmondson also addresses several important misconceptions about Psychological Safety in her book. These include the following which are worth highlighting here:

It’s not about being nice – a psychologically safe workplace is not one where people simply agree with each other for the sake of ‘being nice’; or offer unequivocal praise. In short, it allows candour and provides opportunity for those with different views to share them and disagree constructively. Likewise, and as indicated above, feeling psychologically safe should not be misunderstood as permission to behave badly – disrespecting others, ignoring others, shaming or embarrassing others (it should be obvious that these behaviours damage levels of Psychological Safety in the workplace).

It’s not about lowering performance standards – Psychological Safety sets the stage for a more honest, more challenging, more collaborative, and thus also more effective work environment. It means that people believe they can – and must – be forthcoming at work. In fact, it is conducive to setting ambitious goals and working toward them together.

Increasing my own understanding of Psychological Safety has changed the way I view and approach workplace situations today. Looking back, I can see that not revealing, up-front to my team, the gaps in my own knowledge and understanding as a manager and leader did not always set the right stage for others to feel safe enough to give voice to their ideas and opinions - my own calculations of Psychological Safety were probably to avoid embarrassment and undermining my ‘reputation as a leader’, but the effect was more likely to inhibit team work, innovation and creativity. I make a conscious effort to try and set the stage more effectively these days (helped by my firm which has recognised the importance of Psychological Safety and has included training and guidance on the subject in its resources for senior managers).

Have a look at Edmondson’s book – it’s not long and very easy to read, and there’s lots of good references to the research evidence if you want to follow things up. I’m sure it will give you some ideas for how you and your teams can work together better; and some added confidence when talking to your own clients about how they need to address their organisational challenges (any organisational change programme will require high levels of Psychological Safety to optimise the quality of the solution and the sustainability of whatever change is being implemented).