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What is psychological safety at work?

Does your team feel safe to make honest mistakes? If not, you may be stifling creativity and innovation.

Posted September 16, 2022 by Anna Brown

Reading time 6 min

As an executive, you may feel at liberty to speak up without fear of repercussions and loss of respect. But do you know if your direct reports feel the same way? How about the managers and individual contributors who report up to them?

Your answer points directly to the degree of “psychological safety” present in your workplace. Amy Edmondson, the Harvard professor who coined the term, says psychological safety is a “critical driver of high-quality decision making, healthy group dynamics and interpersonal relationships, greater innovation, and more effective execution in organizations.”

With that much at stake, psychological safety is an important phenomenon for leaders to understand—and monitor.

Psychological safety, defined

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

Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth

Psychological safety is rooted in the idea that employees who feel a sense of mutual trust and respect will outperform employees who feel inhibited by a culture of recrimination.

Benefits of psychological safety

Having strong psychological safety creates an environment where team members feel supported and encouraged to learn and innovate. Organizations with a high degree of psychological safety will see:

  • A culture of learning: In psychologically safe environments, “people have the humility to know what they don’t know and the curiosity to rethink the way they’ve always done things,” writes organizational psychologist Adam Grant.
  • More creativity: While the old performance-oriented cultures often prioritize short-term results and time-tested processes over long-term growth and worthwhile risks, learning cultures have long been shown to foster innovation and creative problem solving. 
  • High-performing teams: Groups with a culture of learning and the comfort to think and act creatively are more likely to innovate, adapt to changes, and reap the full benefits of diverse perspectives.

Read more about how to foster a culture of learning here

How to start creating psychological safety

Psychological safety starts at the top, with executives developing and modeling the leadership behaviors they want to see across the organization, communicating transparently, and leading with empathy.

Create clarity

  • Consider documenting team-level agreements, a set of guidelines that establish expectations for how team members work with one another.
  • Use the first 5-10 minutes of your weekly 1:1s to provide feedback. Ask for feedback directly: “What can I do to be a better manager?” Give feedback as well: “Here’s one thing you can focus on this week.” 
  • Schedule “stay interviews.” Conduct one-on-one meetings with team members to assess their risk of attrition. Pose direct questions to gather feedback on what’s working and what’s not:
    • What do you like about your job? What gives you energy? What saps your energy?
    • If you could change something about your job, what would it be? What would make your job more satisfying?
    • What opportunities will help you stretch and grow?

Accept and own mistakes

When people are afraid of making mistakes, they’re less willing to take risks—which ultimately stifles creativity and innovation. As a leader, it’s up to you to model that making mistakes is a natural part of the learning process. Do this by owning up to your own mistakes, then describing what you’ve learned and exactly how you’ll change tack to be successful in the future.

Share what’s hard

If you’re going through personal challenges—recovering from an illness or injury, supporting a sick child or family member, overseeing home renovations that make it hard to focus, transitioning to an empty nest—tell your team. While there’s no need to overshare, articulating what you’re working through can be really helpful in making your team feel connected to you and safe to share their own challenges. 

Ask for help (so others will too!)

Asking for help is one of the easiest ways to model that it’s safe to be vulnerable. Come to your next team meeting with a question or problem that your team can help solve. A few examples: 

  • How can we make our meetings more productive? More inclusive? 
  • Do we want to modify how we check-in on progress as a team? If so, how?
  • Where do we think there are silos of information and how can I help break those down? 

Create spaces for human connection

The more we learn about each other’s personal lives, the more connected we feel and the more trust we build. From starting staff meetings with icebreakers (e.g., What was your first concert?”), to hosting team volunteer time off (VTO) days, to creating and distributing personal user manuals, it’s worth making time to foster personal connections among your team.

In-person gatherings should be planned with intention to make time for building social connections and camaraderie – with budget allocated for memorable and productive employee experiences. For example, see how Datavant infuses a mix of strategy, celebration, and team building at offsite events. 

Datavant San Diego Offsite
At health data software company Datavant, employee gatherings feature an intentional mix of strategy, celebration, and team building. Making time for social connection is one key to fostering psychological safety on teams.

Practice brainwriting over brainstorming

Brainwriting allows your team to generate ideas ahead of live review, creating psychological safety for diverse teams and involving more voices that might normally go unheard in rooms where senior and more extroverted voices tend to dominate.

Set up “pop up” rules for team gatherings

Recommended by Priya Parker, facilitator, strategic advisor, podcast host and author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters, being explicit about rules overrides unspoken cultural norms. This gives everyone clarity on what is expected and leads to greater psychological safety. Sample “pop up” rules include when and how to ask questions, when casual conversation is encouraged, and when to keep your video on versus when it’s ok to turn it off. 

“When you’re not explicit, you marginalize the people who don’t know the dominant code.” 

Priya Parker

Priya Parker, facilitator, strategic advisor, podcast host and author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters

Example of psychological safety

An internal experiment at Slack revealed the importance of creating clarity when asking employees to provide unvarnished feedback. In this example, a Slack in-house researcher studied a Slack engineering team that had expressed interest in more mechanisms for a feedback loop with leadership.

In response, researchers deployed a new leadership feedback functionality within Slack itself. The workflow served up a task window that asked employees how they felt on specific topics. Employees were prompted to fill in their open-ended input and press submit. They were told their responses were confidential, but that leadership would circle back on feedback during regular sessions (e.g., coffee chats).

Seems straightforward enough. So what was the result? As it turned out, adoption was strikingly low on the feedback mechanism. In spite of citing that they had good working relationships with management, employees reported that they were concerned about their name being attached to feedback and who, specifically, would see the feedback.

The team’s hesitation to give feedback on certain topics speaks to the subtle, hidden nature of psychological safety. To ensure this level of trust, leaders must embrace comprehensive, wide open communication that creates clarity at every turn. The lesson here is that when asking for input through a tool like this—or other mechanisms like surveys—leaders should proactively communicate how the feedback will be used, what information will and won’t be anonymized, and exactly who will have access to participant responses.

Psychological safety resources

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