In today’s highly competitive business environment, building high-performing teams is a top priority for organisations of all sizes and industries.
The recipe for success often includes a mix of talent, innovation, and collaboration, but there’s one ingredient that has been steadily gaining attention: psychological safety.
Though the concept of psychological safety in the workplace has existed in some form since the 1950s, it’s become something businesses want to embed in their teams.
This article will delve into psychological safety’s history, significance, and practical applications, highlighting why it’s crucial in building and maintaining high-performing teams.
Why Psychological Safety Matters
Psychological safety is a shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal communication and risk-taking.
It’s the conviction that no member will be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.
Shared is a keyword here, as psychological safety instantly fails unless the entire team shares it.
A psychologically safe business culture fosters better communication, mutual respect, and a willingness to challenge the status quo. It builds resilience in teams, allowing them to navigate through failure and learn from it, leading to greater agility and adaptability.
Think of it this way: Each team contains multiple viewpoints, abilities, ideas, and instincts – but do people feel safe enough to use them?
The whole point of teamwork is combining the skills of multiple individuals, so when this basic principle falters, the very purpose of collaboration diminishes.
While many managers may feel they’ve already obtained psychological safety in their teams, statistics say differently.
- For instance, 61% of US employees have experienced or witnessed workplace discrimination.
- In the UK, 6% of employees have experienced direct discrimination.
- 11% of UK employees have toxic relationships with managers or peers at work, and 15% have taken time off work because their communications felt challenged.
- In a study overviewed by Forbes, just 26% of employees felt psychologically safe at work, 61% said they felt elevated stress, and 32% agreed they’d felt lonely at work.
Conversely, excellent psychological safety is widely regarded as boosting productivity and morale, leading to higher retention, fewer absences, and, ultimately, greater business success.
- According to Accenture, psychological safety leads to 76% more engagement, 50% more productivity and 74% less stress.
- Data overviewed by HRNews links psychological safety with 56% increases in productivity and a 50% reduction in employee turnover.
- McKinsey’s research found that both employees and managers report benefits when team members feel psychologically safe.
- Studies such as Google’s Aristotle Project and Amy Edmonson’s Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams have investigated team dynamics in top companies and found psychological safety to be instrumental for productivity and success.
We could go on, but psychological safety is an ambiguous concept that needs to be robustly defined before you try to implement it in your teams.
The History of Psychological Safety
Research into psychological safety has exploded in the last decade or so, but it has a long, meandering history that dates back to the best part of 100 years.
Here’s a brief timeline of how psychological safety has evolved from humble beginnings to the critical concept it’s viewed as today.
- 1943: American psychologist Abraham Maslow, famous for Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, identified “belongingness needs,” stating that “if both the physiological and the safety needs are fairly well gratified, then there will emerge the love and affection and belongingness needs.”
- 1947: American political scientist Herbert Simon suggested that fully functioning organisations need “attitudes of friendliness and cooperation.”
- 1965: The term psychological safety debuted, originally coined by Edgar H. Schein and Warren G. Bennis in their book, “Personal and Organizational Change Through Group Methods: The Laboratory Approach.” They defined psychological safety as a climate “which encourages provisional tries and which tolerates failure without retaliation, renunciation, or guilt.”
- 1990: William Khan, professor of organisational behaviour, reignited interest in psychological safety with his paper “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work.” He explained that for employees to feel engaged at work (which is a key ingredient in effective performance), they need to feel safe to express themselves authentically.
- 1999: Amy Edmonson, professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, added to these definitions of psychological safety in her paper “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.” She described it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
- 2014: Google conducted the influential “Project Aristotle,” where the organisation studied 180 of its own teams for a period of three years. They identified psychological safety as the defining characteristic of its most high-performing teams. More on this shortly.
- 2020: Timothy R. Clark: CEO of LeaderFactor and social scientist, wrote “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation.” This vital work describes psychological safety as a 4-stage process where teams progress from inclusion to learning, contribution, and challenger safety. The ultimate aim is to harness and focus everyone’s efforts so that they feel safe and able to put forward ideas and have them heard without fear. This is where the magic happens – and where a team becomes stronger than the sum of its parts.
The Connection with High-Performing Teams
The link between psychological safety and high-performing teams has been well-documented over the years.
With psychological safety comes empowerment, creativity and innovation. It’s all connected, and all begins with feeling safe and secure to act oneself and put forward ideas without fear or prejudice.
Harnessing the collective abilities of a team’s members and channelling them for productivity and success requires an environment where everyone feels comfortable contributing regardless of rank or role.
Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson’s groundbreaking 1999 research found that teams with high levels of psychological safety were more likely to take on ambitious projects, learn from their mistakes, and achieve their goals. Her work has influenced team-building efforts globally, inspiring organisations to prioritise psychological safety.
Another landmark in psychological safety, Project Aristotle by Google, conducted an extensive analysis of 180 teams’ effectiveness and found that it was among the top factors contributing to a team’s success.
Today, psychological safety is applied to virtually all sectors and industries, including technology, finance, manufacturing, the creative industries, education, healthcare and public sector and governmental organisations, including military and defence.
Building Psychological Safety
So, how do managers and leaders start building cultures of psychological safety?
Here are the four primary cornerstones:
1. Leadership Commitment
Leadership transcends mere management – it’s about fostering an environment that thrives on psychological safety.
Leadership plays a pivotal role in creating this environment, and it begins with the leaders’ actions, attitudes, and commitment to openness and acceptance.
- Open Communication: Creating an atmosphere where questions, feedback, and diverse opinions are not just tolerated but actively sought requires deliberate effort. Promote open dialogue through regular meetings and open communication channels.
- Admitting Mistakes: Openly discussing defeats and the lessons learned from them is vital in a psychologically safe environment. Be transparent with your mistakes to set a precedent that encourages team members to take risks, innovate, and learn without fear of reprisal. Treating failure as a learning opportunity rather than a taboo cultivates an environment where creativity and growth thrive.
2. Building Trust Through Relationships
Trust isn’t built overnight.
Building and nurturing relationships within the team leads to a more unified and resilient workforce where every member feels supported and connected.
- Regular One-on-Ones: Hold private conversations with team members to form a two-way dialogue. If you invest time in one-on-one meetings, you’ll uncover both positive and negative sentiments, allowing you to provide personal support that reinforces trust within the team.
- Team-Building Activities: Team lunches, outdoor excursions, or collaborative projects build connections and camaraderie, creating a barrier-free atmosphere. Investing in these activities fosters community and cohesion within the team, translating into more effective teamwork and a stronger commitment to shared goals.
3. Encourage and Reward Risk-Taking
Taking risks is part of business – psychologically safe environments should celebrate risk-taking, creativity and pragmatism.
A psychologically safe environment is one where people feel safe to advocate for change, essentially reducing the chance of forming a status quo.
- Celebrate Creativity: Encourage and reward innovative ideas, even when they don’t lead to immediate success. This will help establish systems that recognise and celebrate creative thinking and cultivate a culture of continuous innovation. Empower employees to think outside the box and explore new possibilities without feeling like they’ll be judged.
- Recognise Efforts: Foster an atmosphere where hard work and perseverance are valued. This involves recognising efforts, including when someone acts to indicate they feel safe, such as suggesting a new strategy or providing candid feedback. Once you see positive signs that you’re building a psychologically safe team, be sure to reinforce them.
4. Establish Clear Expectations
Collaboration is the backbone of a successful team, but each team member should be confident with their roles and responsibilities.
This shows team members that their skills and expertise are appreciated individually and as part of the team.
- Role Clarity: Clearly define roles and responsibilities within the team to remove ambiguity and reduce conflicts.
- Provide Constructive Feedback: Feedback is a powerful tool for growth and must be delivered thoughtfully. Offering timely, specific, and constructive feedback helps individuals grow without feeling criticised or undervalued. It’s not just the team leader’s job to provide feedback – everyone must have that right.
- Provide Resources for Mental and Emotional Support: Emotional well-being is vital to a psychologically safe environment. Research shows that leaders who implement Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and provide training in mental health awareness demonstrate a commitment to supporting team members’ emotional well-being. You can foster a culture of empathy by prioritising mental and emotional health awareness and support.
Creating psychological safety is a multifaceted challenge that requires deliberate efforts across many dimensions. It takes time, so don’t expect results overnight.
Overall, it’s a holistic process that requires a blend of training, coaching and team building.
Team development training is vital to fostering truly collaborative teams where everyone’s skills are realised.
Challenges and Obstacles in Implementing Psychological Safety
Psychological safety involves a careful blend of specific leadership strategies, team development, emotional support and broader company culture initiatives.
Here are some common challenges you might encounter when trying to enhance psychological safety.
1. Resistance to Change
Implementing psychological safety is more than just introducing a new policy or procedure – it requires a profound shift in organisational culture.
The process can produce friction in some organisations which are reluctant to change.
- Understanding the Resistance: Recognising the sources of resistance is the first step. Be aware that fear of the unknown (both in employees and management), attachment to old methods and hierarchies, or misconceptions about psychological safety can hinder initiatives.
- Solution: Engage team members in the process from the beginning. You can create a sense of ownership and buy-in by deliberately involving team members to build psychological safety. This shouldn’t be an underhand or covert initiative – be open, willing, and engaged.
2. Fear of Vulnerability
Vulnerability is at the heart of psychological safety, but encouraging it within a team can be complex.
Team members may fear exposure, ridicule, or judgement, hindering their willingness to be open and honest.
- Understanding the Fear: Recognising why team members may feel apprehensive about showing vulnerability will help you address these fears effectively. Vulnerabilities may stem from past experiences, the existing culture, or personal insecurities.
- Solution: Set the tone by openly sharing your own vulnerabilities and demonstrating that honesty and openness are valued. Celebrating those who take interpersonal risks and encourage others to do the same, but be aware of different approaches. This approach fosters a culture where authenticity in all forms is seen as a strength, not a weakness.
3. Overemphasis on Harmony
A relentless focus on harmony can stifle necessary debates and critical thinking.
An environment where everyone agrees all the time can lead to complacency and hinder growth and innovation.
This is one of the more complex aspects of psychological safety, as it emphasises people’s ability to respectfully make challenging suggestions.
- Understanding when Harmony Becomes Burdensome: Recognising the difference between fostering a harmonious work environment and suppressing essential debates is crucial. An overemphasis on agreement can stifle creativity and lead to missed opportunities for improvement.
- Solution: Clear differentiation between healthy debate and harmful behaviour is key. Encourage team members to engage in constructive debates by providing tools and frameworks, such as structured debate sessions or clear guidelines for providing critical but respectful feedback. This ensures that differing opinions are valued and explored.
4. Measuring Success
Measuring the success of initiatives related to psychological safety can be intricate and multifaceted due to its qualitative nature. Don’t rely on your instincts alone to gauge whether or not things are moving forward.
- Solution: Use a blend of regular surveys, feedback sessions, and behavioural observations to collect valuable insights into how safe people feel. Anonymised feedback works a charm. At the department or organisation level, monitor key performance indicators (KPIs), such as employee engagement, attrition, and productivity. It should be fairly straightforward to correlate anonymous employee feedback on psychological safety with other KPIs.
Psychological safety has quickly risen from a fringe business concept to something that shapes the ability of teams to innovate, collaborate, and adapt in an ever-changing business environment.
Organisations that embrace psychological safety will align themselves with what employees want in the modern workplace.
From tech giants like Google to small startups, adopting psychological safety practices has proven to drive high-performing teams and foster a resilient organisational culture.
This isn’t a one-time effort. It requires constant attention, intentional strategies, and a genuine commitment among all team members.
Inner Leader can help you build psychological safety within your team. We offer leadership and team development, coaching, and other services to assist you in building a successful, productive and psychologically safe team.