Explore workplace psychological safety - types, benefits, challenges, and impact on productivity. Get expert insights.
No workplace can be without it, but what exactly is psychological safety?
According to world authority Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is defined as:
”A belief that you can speak up at work with:
- and ideas, even those that you're not terribly confident about.”
The Harvard professor told us in interview that, in a culture of psychological safety, team members can ask for help without being judged for it. Their colleagues and bosses will accept them for not being perfect, for not having all the answers.
Ahead of our January 2024 live virtual event with Amy Edmondson, we discuss here why psychological safety is important at work, and why people must feel safe to learn, to report errors, and to be creative. So, read on for more answers to the question “What is psychological safety?”
What are the four types of psychological safety?
There are 4 types of psychological safety playing their role in creating a healthy, productive, and inclusive work or social environment.
If we feel we don’t belong at work, we search for the exit.
So keen to belong are humans that our brain’s neural processors can hardly differentiate between social pain caused by ostracism and physical pain. (1) As a result, we fear anything that might cause people to reject us.
Inclusion in psychological safety refers to an environment where team members feel accepted, respected, and valued for their unique identities and perspectives.
As expert Kylie Lewis says, a psychologically safe workplace continually signals to workers: ‘You belong’, ‘You matter’, ‘You’re safe’.
Risk tolerance in psychological safety is when people are encouraged to take calculated risks and make mistakes without the fear of severe consequences or retribution.
As Amy Edmondson says in her new book ‘Right Kind of Wrong’:
“An effective pilot is riddled with intelligent failures that generate valuable information about what isn’t quite ready for prime time.”
When people feel safe to experiment and innovate, they are more likely to come up with creative solutions, learn from their experiences, and continually improve.
Safe to Communicate Constructively
When this type of psychological safety is present, people feel comfortable providing constructive feedback, voicing concerns, and engaging in open, honest, and respectful communication.
It encourages candid conversations that can lead to problem-solving, improved teamwork, and personal growth, rather than bottling up thoughts and feelings due to fear of negative repercussions.
Amy says you can tell a workplace is psychologically safe by listening closely:
- Are people speaking up with problems and failures or just with successes, or are people raising half an idea?
- Are they asking for help when they're in over their head?
- Are they saying when they don't know something?
A consequence-free environment means people do not face severe repercussions or punishment for their honest mistakes or well-intentioned actions.
It allows people to admit errors, seek help when needed, and acknowledge their limitations without the fear of being unfairly blamed or punished.
Alan Mulally, known as the CEO who saved Ford Motor Co., famously got the best out of his people by encouraging his managers to “own working together” by:
· speaking up honestly about problems they were having.
· helping others with their problems.
Every facet of the company was colour-coded, green for projects going well and on plan, yellow for areas needing attention and red for the most urgent situations. (2) Legend has it that when the first manager admitted to his project being on red, Mulally clapped him, congratulating him for honesty.
This type of safety promotes a culture of accountability and learning from failures.
What are the Benefits of Psychological Safety in the Workplace?
- For a start, honesty thrives because people stop saying different things behind leaders’ backs than to their faces.
- He also says innovation thrives because individuals aren't paralysed by fear.
- And, he says people will admit their mistakes instead of hiding them to protect themselves.
- As well, people will keep others accountable, as they don’t fear rocking the boat to help the team achieve excellence.
As Adam Grant says in his TED podcast WorkLife, “Things will go wrong! That’s the nature of work. Making it unsafe to acknowledge that is a problem.”
What are the Challenges Organisations face in creating a Psychologically Safe Workplace?
While the benefits of a psychologically safe workplace are well-documented, a McKinsey Global Study found that just 43% of respondents report a positive team climate within their team.(3)
This indicates that, for these teams, at least some of the following challenges to creating a psychologically safe workplace might be present:
· Fear of Confrontation. Teams may have an aversion to conflict and confrontation. Many people have a “need to be liked” and fear being honest or vulnerable may lead to them being disliked or ostracised by their peers or superiors.
· Hierarchical Structures. These make it difficult for employees to feel safe challenging the decisions or opinions of higher-ranking individuals.
· Resistance to Change. Some employees may resist efforts to encourage more open communication and diverse viewpoints.
· Organisational Norms and Traditions. Deeply ingrained cultural norms that prioritise conformity, deference to authority, or avoidance of risk-taking can impede efforts to create a psychologically safe workplace.
· Fear of Retaliation. A history of reprisals or a lack of trust in the organisation's commitment to psychological safety can deter people from speaking their minds.
· Lack of Training and Awareness. Organisations may not invest in training employees and leaders on the importance of psychological safety or how to create and maintain it.
· Cultural Diversity and Inclusion. Organisations that are culturally diverse may face additional challenges in ensuring that psychological safety is inclusive of all employees. Misunderstandings or biases can create barriers to open communication and collaboration.
· Resistance from Leadership. If leaders are not fully on board or do not model the desired behaviours, it can send mixed messages and undermine efforts to create a safe environment.
· Measurement and Evaluation. It may be difficult to quantify and track progress, making it harder to identify areas that need improvement.
To overcome these challenges, it’s important to ensure there is a commitment from leadership and systems in place to help people feel emotionally safe when discussing challenging topics at work.
How to Create Psychological Safety in your Team?
"Lead from the front" is one of the key ways you can create psychological safety in your team.
Our masterclass with Kylie Lewis, based on the work of Amy Edmondson, learned of 10 tools to develop psychological safety at work, and one of Kylie's top 10 was for leaders to lead without putting on your "armour" or by putting on a show. In other words, leaders should be authentic.
With this in mind, we answer the following questions about creating psychological safety in your team.
How do you address different personality types in a psychologically safe team setting?
This requires recognising and valuing diversity. Inclusive leadership values various perspectives and encourages team members to contribute in ways that align with their unique personalities.
For example, introverted team members may prefer written communication or one-on-one discussions over speaking up in a meeting.
How can leaders and managers actively support psychological safety within their teams?
Both Amy Edmondson and Adam Grant emphasise the role of leaders and managers in creating psychological safety in their teams. They can do this by:
- Leading by Example – Leaders should model the desired behaviours and admit to mistakes.
- Encouraging Questions – Create an environment where questions are valued, not suppressed.
- Providing Constructive Feedback – Focus on growth and improvement, not blame.
- Recognising and Rewarding Contributions – Reward those who do speak up.
- Fostering Trust – Be reliable, maintain confidentiality, and demonstrate empathy and understanding.
How can team collaboration be optimised to create a psychologically safe space?
- For a start, ensure that team members have a shared understanding of their goals, roles, and responsibilities to minimise confusion and promote alignment.
- Then, actively seek out diverse viewpoints, experiences, and backgrounds within the team to enrich discussions and decision-making processes.
- Book your teams into Amy Edmondson’s free, live, virtual event in January 2024, and have your whole company learn how to encourage a culture where psychological safety is of paramount importance, and failure is seen as an opportunity for growth rather than a reason for blame or punishment.
- Finally, develop team norms and ground rules that promote respect, active listening, and constructive feedback.
Impact of Psychological Safety and Team Productivity
As we wind up this article on psychological safety, let's finish with the business case for doing your utmost to make yours a safe workplace.
Aside from tragic well-being and mental health costs to the team, team productivity takes a big hit when a workplace is toxic, and poisoned by backstabbing, freezing out, bullying, passive aggressiveness, or apathy.
Productivity is also affected by absenteeism, high turnover, poor results, and well-being issues.
Building a culture of psychological safety is not just the right thing to do (and why Safe Work Australia wants organisations to reduce psychosocial hazards) but it’s also good for productivity and business success.
“If colleagues and leaders can communicate clearly, show they care, and practise radical candour, it can go a long way to keeping employees engaged and productive,” says Mark Green, author of ‘Create a Culture of Accountability.’
Just as Amy Edmondson and Adam Grant are famous for saying, Mark says one of the most important behaviours of a leader is to “look for the answers not the culprit.”
“So be clarity-driven instead of doing any finger pointing…..and driven to find root causes for issues, and not naming and shaming. This is very important for the team to maintain cohesion.”
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1.Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003, from Australian Psychological Society In Psych 2019, Vol. 41, June Issue
2.Michael Distefano, ‘Alan Mulally: The Man Who Saved Ford,’ Korn Ferry website.
3. ‘Psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development,’ 2021, McKinsey & Co. website.