How Psychological Safety In The Workplace Inspires Success

Published on
April 22, 2021
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How Psychological Safety In The Workplace Inspires Success

There is safety in numbers. Particularly when everyone on a team feels they have the same beliefs and goals. It’s not just physical security that matters, but rather the psychological sense of safety that comes when the team feels that they can trust and respect one another, and believes their manager is looking out for their best interests.  

Psychological safety is a condition in which you feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo — all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.

Studies have shown that psychological safety empowers risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, adaptability, and developing the courage to speak out without fear of being reprimanded are the types of behavior that lead to market breakthroughs. Ancient evolutionary adaptations explain why psychological safety is both fragile and vital — these are the necessary building blocks to achieving success in unpredictable, interdependent environments.

“There’s no team without trust,” says Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google. He knows the results of the tech giant’s massive two-year study on team performance, which revealed that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety, the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake.

The Meaning of Psychological Safety at Work

Safety is considered a basic human need.  To support high-performing teams, creating psychologically safe work environments is critical to not only basic human decency, but retention. 

The term psychological safety was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson.  She defines it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”  Establishing a climate of psychological safety allows space for people to speak up and share their ideas.

The Importance of Encouraging Psychological In The Workplace

In his 2017 book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek tells us why some teams pull together and some don’t.  Using the example of US forces trapped in a valley in Afghanistan and saved by cover fire from an overhead aircraft, Simon argues that it’s the role of a leader to provide cover from the risks that threaten the unity of a group.

Students of Wildfire Leadership, who know a great deal about danger and safety, have a blog that addresses many related issues.  The following diagram depicts psychological dangers a group can face, and the benefits of psychological safety:

You might be thinking to yourself, what does it exactly mean to have psychological safety at work when work is virtual right now and does it even matter?  Yes, actually it does.  David Altman of the Center for Creative Leadership informs us that “the work-from-home reality may give team members a unique opportunity to forge connections and increase psychological safety — if they’re paying attention.  

Furthermore, it has been proven in organizations that high psychological safety drives performance and innovation, while low psychological safety incurs the disabling costs of low productivity and high attrition.  

Ed Catmull and the team at Pixar have used an unconventional approach to creativity to solidify psychological safety in their organization.  Counter to instinct, they built a culture around risk taking, where all ideas are encouraged and unpredictable paths are embraced.

The message of this approach:  have everyone feel comfortable sharing incomplete work, and then learning and becoming inspired through further development together. This creative process is one of trust and openness, where team members can be vulnerable without penalty.

Ways Leaders Can Promote Psychological Safety At Work

Here are four simple ways by Laura Delizonna of the Harvard Business Review on how to create psychological safety in your workplace. If you can’t implement all of them, start with one. You may be surprised how one small change and its ripple effects will impact your people, and your workplace, for the better.

  • Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary.
  • When conflicts come up, avoid triggering a fight-or-flight reaction by asking, “How could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?”
  • Speak human-to-human, but anticipate reactions, plan countermeasures, and adopt a learning mindset, where you’re truly curious to hear the other person’s point of view.
  • Ask for feedback to illuminate your own blind spots.

In Leaders Eat Last (2017), Sinek makes the following points: Intimidation, humiliation, isolation, feeling dumb, feeling useless and rejection are all stresses we try to avoid inside the organization. But the danger inside is controllable and it should be the goal of leadership to set a culture free of danger from each other.  

And the way to do that is by giving people a sense of belonging. By offering them a strong culture based on a clear set of human values and beliefs. By giving them the power to make decisions. By offering trust and empathy. By creating a Circle of Safety, Sinek says, “leadership reduces the threats people feel inside the group, which frees them up to focus more time and energy to protect the organization from the constant dangers outside and seize the big opportunities.”

Psychological safety should not be just another perk to add to the employee benefits list. Making psychological safety a priority should be a vital part of every company’s culture and future. That is if businesses want to create a successful empire, and more importantly, contribute to an inclusive, diverse, and accepting workplace where team members feel safe to express themselves.  In the end, team members’ success will ultimately reflect the makings of a great company.

Try putting some of these steps into practice and ask yourself, are you setting up your team to be psychologically safe by creating conditions in which they feel:

  1. Included
  2. Safe to learn
  3. Safe to contribute, and
  4. Safe to challenge the status quo

If you can work your way up to answering yes to all of these, then you are on your way to having a dream team!


The Four Stages of Psychological Safety, Porchlight Books

Check out our blog articles on Leadership here.

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About Mariam Rowhani

Mariam is a freelance writer offering support for businesses & entrepreneurs locally and globally. She brings a significant amount of experience in the corporate marketing industry and as a freelancer in content management, internet research, blogging, article writing, copy editing, and proofreading.

Her mission is to empower business owners to produce content that clearly and authentically communicates with their target audiences, ultimately making lives less stressful as well as allowing for more free time to live more well-balanced and healthier lives.

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