What is psychological safety and why should we work on it?

When Amy Edmondson coined the term, ‘psychological safety’ over two decades ago – little did she know that we would need it now more than ever!

Psychological safety is about having a workplace environment or culture where people feel safe enough to:

  • Speak up when there’s a problem – a project is going off the rails or there are potential dangers in the workplace
  • Offer radical new ideas
  • Allow failure and learn from it
  • Call out racism and other -isms and address microaggressions
  • Let people know that you are not OK
  • Alert management that people are burning out
  • Provide feedback to others
  • Engage in difficult but necessary conversations – such as reconnecting with a colleague where tempers may have flared and talking things through

This is not about having a happy-clappy environment; it’s not even a focus on positivity or being ‘nice’. Indeed, psychological safety is about having a robust environment where people can do their jobs to the full extent of their capabilities, and they interact with others (responsibly) without fear of reprisal.

How do you create psychological safety?

Stop being reactive. Rein in the brain’s knee-jerk reactions – these only shut down people’s willingness to offer ideas.

Fully listen without judgement – easier said than done with our brain that jumps to judgement so quickly.

Be concerned about others’ wellbeing and about their growth and development.

Give feedback when you are at your best and when it is about the other person’s learning and growth.

Stop blaming especially when giving feedback – stop projecting a sense of blame, instead focus on the behaviours that need to change.

Stop the witch-hunt – errors occur and it’s a good idea to do a root cause analysis but don’t let this become a witch hunt for a person to blame and criticise.

Focus on ideas and behaviours when giving feedback; don’t make these personal.

Overcome grudges and revenge – especially when we feel we’ve been treated unfairly, we will aim for revenge or we will hold a grudge – this is natural, but it’s not helpful.

Pay attention to inclusion – people will not feel safe enough to speak up if they don’t have a foundational sense of belonging, respect and fairness.

Never shame anyone, full stop – it doesn’t matter what they’ve done; nobody deserves to be shamed in the workplace and certainly not in front of colleagues.

Psychological safety occurs when a number of these factors are in place. But it might be most important to pay attention to the theme: it’s all about people’s attitudes and their ability to rein in emotional reactions. This takes energy and is most likely to happen if there is a broad foundation of wellbeing.

When people are stressed and overworked, they will be more reactive and create less safety which then creates more stress. This is a vicious spiral that needs to be stopped, if people are going to bring their best selves to work, they need to be able to do so in safety.

For more on this topic, you might want to check out related blog posts:

Is it useful to speak about fear?

Perhaps we are doing a disservice to clients, organisations, and teams when we talk about fear and fear responses. Because not everyone recognises fear when they are experiencing it and it will be easy for them to ignore our messages about how to ‘manage fear’.

The de-skilling nature of fear

One great thing about fear is that it focuses our attention, quite acutely. In this brain-mode, the priority is survival. We may feel panic, anger, grit, anxiety and even power. But will we have access to our eloquence? No. To our finesse? Probably not.

Why do teams need positivity?

Teams we enjoy have more trust, mutual respect between team members, and they produce quality results with more reliability.