Psychological safety at work

Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.

Amy EdmondsonNovartis Professor of Leadership and Management, Harvard Business School

As a facilitator who has emphasised the importance of relationship to performance and the critical element of feelings in the workplace, I was pleased to come across the work of Professor Edmondson.

In a business world that emphasises the bottom line (“If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist”), I have found that being an advocate for the “soft” side of excellent management, as a necessary partner to the need for results, can be an uphill battle. Certainly, one hears the usual mantras, such as, “People are our greatest asset.” But that often sounds shallow.

The fact is that in some of organisations I have worked with, there was a climate of fear. People would remain silent rather than risk being criticised. Admitting ignorance and/or being seen as negative was frowned upon. In other instances, even when the climate was not so extreme, the push to meet targets could also have a similar effect.

Amy Edmondson

Edmondson argues that creating conditions of psychological safety is crucial for effective learning in organisations. She notes that in cultures where psychological safety is strong, risk taking and innovation are accepted and even desired. In her presentation on Ted Talks, she discusses how surprised she was to learn that teams that admitted more errors, in comparison to those that didn’t report errors, were more likely to be high-performing. This was because team members felt safe enough to speak out.

Edmondson makes it clear that psychological safety does not negate the critical factor of accountability. As she says in her talk, “If you’re only talking about people’s accountability for excellence and not making sure that they’re not afraid to talk to each other, then they’re in the anxiety zone.”

The crucial role of psychological safety in the way it affects team performance received further confirmation in a two-year study run by Google. The research examined many teams in their organisation and found five key factors in determining excellence. These were:

  1. Psychological Safety: Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of others
  2. Dependability: Team members get things done on time, while maintaining high standards
  3. Structure and Clarity: Team members have clear plans and goals
  4. Meaning: Team members are engaged in work that matters to them
  5. Impact: Team members believe that their work matters and creates change.

Of these five factors, the one that received the highest ranking was psychological safety.

In my work with teams, I have found that achieving a state of psychological safety can be very difficult. Showing any sign of one’s vulnerability is often disparaged in the workplace. Even in the best of circumstances, lack of self-confidence works against open discussion and candour. Remaining silent at least offers protection against being seen to fail. Nevertheless, there are many organisations that thrive in a climate of psychological safety. For them, the bottom line is “People really are our greatest asset.”

For a more detailed analyisis of psychological safety, I suggest viewing Amy Edmondson on Ted Talks Building a psychologically safe workplace and the article What Google Learned from its Quest to Build the Perfect Team, NY Times Magazine, by Charles Duhigg, February 25, 2016.