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15th January 2024

Psychological Safety and Why It Matters

Headshot of Aurelie Salvaire
Author Aurelie Salvaire

All human beings have the same innate need: we long to belong. We all have felt the pain of rejection and reproach. At the same time, we’ve all done some excluding and segregating, some manipulating and controlling, some belittling or unfriending. We’ve all made judgments and treated some people poorly.

Beyond our physical needs for food, shelter, rest, exist the needs for security, belonging and fulfillment which are all covered by psychological safety.

Once the physical needs of food and shelter are met, psychological safety becomes a priority.

If you can create a little more psychological safety for your fellow travelers, it will change your life and theirs.

Quote that reads "Psychological Safety isn't about being nice. It's about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other.

What is psychological safety?

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.

In 1999, Amy Edmondson investigates the culture of error in many hospitals and realizes that when the nurses feel safe enough to challenge their hierarchy, many medical mistakes are being avoided.

7 criteria to assess Psychological Safety

Amy Edmondson then devised a 7-question survey to measure the level of psychological safety within a team. Team members anonymously answer these questions on a scale of 1 to 7.  Here are the 7 criteria:

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  2. Members of this team can bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

What makes a team successful?

Later on, in 2012, Google set out to answer this important question: What makes teams successful? Google coined it “Google’s Project Aristotle.” The name Google’s Project Aristotle comes from the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s quote – “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Quote that reads "Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humilitated for speakign up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes."

After years of analyzing data and interviews from more than 180 teams across the company, Google found that the kinds of people in a team are not so relevant. What really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together.

After studying 180 of its teams, Google found that smarts and resources can’t compensate for what a team may lack in psychological safety. In fact, the company landed on psychological safety as the single most important factor in explaining high performance. 

 

Timothy Clarke’s Levels of Psychological Safety

In 2020, in his book “The four stages of Psychological safety”,

Timothy R. Clark provided a research-based framework to help leaders transform their organizations into sanctuaries of inclusion and incubators of innovation.

He explains that psychological safety follows a progression based on the natural sequence of human needs. First, human beings want to be included. Second, they want to learn. Third, they want to contribute. And finally, they want to challenge the status quo when they believe things need to change. This pattern is consistent across all organizations and social units.

 

Psychological safety in the workplace is important because it…


A graph with y axis Respect and x avis permission with Inclusion safety, learner safety, contributor safety, challenger safety in a linear line moving up from left to right

  • Enhances employee engagement: When team members feel safe at work, it’s easier for them to participate in a team meeting, solve problems, collaborate on projects, and engage with their customers and peers.
  • Fosters an inclusive workplace culture: Safe workspaces welcome diverse teams and allow all team members to flourish regardless of gender, color, race, background, or political preferences. The result is a rich give-and-take experience where everyone feels connected and part of a united front.
  • Inspires creativity and ideas: In order for creativity and ideas to flow organically, team members must feel safe expressing themselves. Imagine how many inspired ideas were never shared because a team member didn’t feel safe sharing.
  • Improves employee wellbeing: Mental health highly contributes to overall wellbeing. When employees are mentally healthy (psychologically safe), it’s easier for them to perform at an optimal level and avoid stressors that keep them from doing their best.
  • Creates brand ambassadors: Creating a psychologically safe workplace is one of the best ways to inspire team members to constantly brag about you.
  • Reduces employee turnover: Team members who feel psychologically safe at work are less likely to leave. In the end, why leave a company that treats you with respect and makes you feel safe and valued? Not to mention, the horrendous costs that come with finding, interviewing, hiring, and training team members (among other costs). High employee turnover isn’t sustainable for successful businesses.
  • Boosts team performance: When you’ve got highly engaged employees that don’t want to leave, an inclusive workplace culture, brand ambassadors, inspired ideas, and healthy employees, you’ve got a winning recipe for boosting team performance.

9 signs your organization has low psychological safety 

Text reading "Psychological Safety = Better problem solving. Having employees who are unafraid to speak up means they can bring their full creativity to problem solving and might help your business recover from a crisis."

  • Employees don’t ask many questions during meetings.
  • Employees don’t feel comfortable owning up to mistakes or place blame on others when mistakes are made.
  • The team avoids difficult conversations and hot-button topics.
  • Executives and team leaders tend to dominate meeting discussions.
  • Feedback is not frequently given or requested.
  • Employees don’t often venture outside of their job descriptions to support other teammates.
  • Employees don’t ask one another for help when they need it.
  • There are hardly any disagreements or differing points of view.
  • Employees don’t know one another personally, just professionally.

We stay silent because we fear or respect the power of others

  • We stay silent when we do not believe we have the power to be heard or to make a difference.
  • To be interested in others is more than a technical skill, it involves a specific life philosophy—a fundamental curiosity and humility.
  • A commitment to ‘power with or for rather than ‘power over, a framing popularised by Fletcher and one with a strongly gendered layering.

There is a perceived ‘hierarchy of speaking up’

  • Those who are junior are less likely to speak up than those who are more senior.
  • It is often the junior employees who, because of the nature of their jobs, see issues and opportunities most immediately, who are most in touch with the actual rather than reported reality.
  • They can be ‘secret keepers’ and their silence is concerning—particularly if you consider that the perception is that 41% would not usually speak up about malpractice.

The effects of the glass ceiling are more pronounced for those who identify with an intersection of marginalized identities

  • Power imbalance in organisational roles may be the most important factor that makes employee silence such a common experience.
  • Voices are choreographed by the light or shadow that social, personal and institutional power casts, either to illuminate or to hide a particular person, group or agenda item.
  • Power differences translate into fearing the consequences of speaking up, especially being socially outcast.

What does psychological safety mean when you belong to a minority?

We are social beings, wanting to belong. To speak up (and to stay silent) is a political act that has consequences for our relationships—not to mention very real consequences for our careers and financial security.

Speaking truth to power is risky

Speaking truth to power is a non-violent political tactic, employed by dissidents against the received wisdom or propaganda of governments they regard as oppressive, authoritarian or an ideocracy.

The new normal needs a culture of psychological safety.  

The absence of physical safety can bring injury or death, but the absence of psychological safety can inflict devastating emotional wounds, neutralize performance, paralyze potential, and crater an individual’s sense of self-worth.

When human beings can’t gain acceptance or approval from each other, they often seek attention as a replacement, even if that attention is destructive.

Graphic about the effects of speaking up without fear of repercussions

Psychological safety drives performance

Every social unit registers some level of psychological safety. In organizations, it’s an uncontested finding that high psychological safety drives performance and innovation, while low psychological safety incurs the disabling costs of low productivity and high attrition.

The more we create psychological safety, the more we enjoy the rewards of rich connection, belonging, and collaboration. The less we create it, the more we suffer the bitterness and sting of isolation.

Check these interesting resources for more information:

Shiftbalance offers psychological safety trainings, and you can also check our resources as well for online trainings and e-learning solutions on this topic!

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