Somewhere between uncertainty and motivation is psychological safety. As a leader, you need to be aware of this fine balance where any focus on peoples accountability for excellence is not being negatively impacted from fear to talk with each other, or yourself, because if that fear does exist as the norm, then they are in the anxiety zone which leads to many other problems in performance and team dynamics.
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety relates to a person’s perspective on how threatening or rewarding it is to take interpersonal risks at work. For instance, is this a place where new ideas are welcomed and built upon? Or picked apart and ridiculed? Will my colleagues embarrass or punish me for offering a different point of view, or for admitting I don’t understand something?
You might be thinking, “Is this just a fancy way of saying trust?” Although trust and psychological safety have a lot in common, they are not completely interchangeable concepts. A key difference is that psychological safety is thought to be experienced at the group level — most people on a team tend to have the same perceptions of it. While trust usually relates to interactions between two individuals or parties (Edmondson, 2004).
What benefits might arise when psychological safety exists?
Psychological safety may help to create an environment conducive to learning. Frazier and colleagues found it was strongly linked to information sharing as well as learning behaviours which include things such as asking questions, seeking feedback, experiments and discussing mistakes or failures.
Sounds like a great team! Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t be surprising that psychological safety is also strongly linked to employee satisfaction!
What might help to cultivate psychological safety?
Psychological safety is strongly associated with role clarity and peer support. You can probably see the logic in this. If you have a good understanding of what’s expected of you on the job and feel encouraged by your colleagues, you may feel more confident speaking up, as well as be more supportive when others do so. Additionally, the degree of interdependence on a team may play a role. For instance, if the team is one where you must count on your colleagues to get the job done, psychological safety may be more likely to develop, than on a team where most folks can complete their tasks without much help from others.
Does culture make a difference?
If you work outside your home country, or in a culturally diverse team, should you think about psychological safety differently? Frazier and colleagues offer initial evidence that suggests, “Yes!” Specifically, they looked at how the role of psychological safety may differ based on “uncertainty avoidance”(UA), i.e., how much people prefer a structured and defined environment. People in high UA cultures tend to value stability, formal rules and social norms (e.g., Germany and Japan). Those in low UA cultures tend to be relatively more informal and unstructured (e.g., US and Denmark). In summary, this study indicates that psychological safety may be even more important in high UA cultures, where individuals may be culturally predisposed to avoid the type of risk-taking required to ask questions, contribute ideas and offer productive challenges to their colleagues.
Can you have too much psychological safety?
Unfortunately, research to date has not yet adequately investigated if there are potential downsides to psychological safety. For instance, could it be linked with an increased likelihood for unethical behaviour? Are their potential consequences for individuals, beyond what they may experience as part of their team, that should be accounted for when taking interpersonal risks? Although there is a growing body of support for the productive role of psychological safety, it’s also important to keep in mind such unanswered questions.
- Psychological safety exists when people feel their team is a place where they can speak up, offer ideas, and ask questions without fear of being punished or embarrassed.
- Perceptions of psychological safety are strongly related to learning behaviours, such as information sharing, asking for help and experimenting, as well as employee satisfaction.
- Things that may help to cultivate psychological safety include support from your colleagues and a clear understanding of your job responsibilities.
Takeaways for your practice
Are you interested in building a team where people ask questions, seek feedback, are willing to experiment and aim to learn from mistakes? Then make sure it feels rewarding rather than threatening for team members to do so. To cultivate psychological safety on your team, you may want to consider:
- Clarifying roles. Ensure team members understand their respective roles and responsibilities, as well as how they contribute to the team’s purpose.
- Modelling the way. Leaders can help set the tone by being curious, asking questions, and exhibiting a tolerance for mistakes.
- Considering culture. A sense of peer and organizational support may be particularly relevant in developing psychological safety in cultures that value stability and rules.
- For more ideas, you may want to check out this guide from Google’s re:Work
Further Resources & Information
Ted Talk by Amy Edmondson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8&feature=youtu.be
Watch how she relates the importance of psychological safety to the 4 Zones of Comfort & Apathy, Learning & Anxiety.
Excellent interview with Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor who coined the term psychologically safe workplace culture as “one where people are not full of fear, and not trying to cover their tracks to avoid being embarrassed or pushed.” In other words, the act of speaking up and learning from mistakes is encouraged, even celebrated.