What is Psychological Safety? – Psychological Safety (2023)

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological Safety In The Workplace

"The belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking"

Edmondson, 1999

When people on a team possess psychological safety, they feel able toask for help, admit mistakes, raise concerns, suggest ideas, and challenge ways of working and the ideas of others on the team, including the ideas of those in authority. Via this honesty and openness, risks are reduced, new ideas are generated, the team is able to execute on those ideas and everyone feels included. Buildingpsychological safety not only improves organisational outcomes, but it’s theright thing to do.

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This is an evolving piece of work. If you spot an error, an improvement, or would like to suggest an addition, please get in touch.

A lack of Psychological Safety was a component cause of the Chernobyl disaster

In 1986, the Chernobyl power plant suffered a major disaster that directly killed 31 people and is estimated to have indirectly killed over 4000. Whilst the plant itself possessed an inherently unsafe design, the culture in Russia at the time did not encourage the raising of concerns or speaking up about mistakes. A fear of authority and the need to please political masters resulted in a fear-driven culture. During a simulated power shutdown, operators who were not fully equipped to deal with the situation made a series of protocol mistakes, including shutting off or ignoring safety systems, which resulted in a steam explosion, followed by a nuclear explosion.The cause of the disaster was in large part due to a lack of psychological safety resulting in operators not speaking up about their concerns. Of course,there is no root cause, but we know that the official findings state that the RBMK reactor could *only* have been operated in an environmentwhere there was no safety culture.

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How and Why Paul O’Neill Fostered Psychological Safety at Alcoa

When Paul O’Neill took over as CEO at Alcoa, an aluminium manufacturer, in 1987, he shocked board members and shareholders by pivoting the company strategy to safety and process over purely financial targets. Despite Alcoa already having a good safety record, he insisted that accidents were the enemy, and that unlike other manufacturing environments, he declared any level of risk to employees unacceptable. He encouraged everyone in the organisation to raise concerns, ideas, and mistakes with respect to process and safety.

Though it’s unlikely he used the word, what he was creating was an environment of psychological safety, and that psychological safety didn’t just result in fewer accidents, but in higher productivity, better quality, improved innovation and employee satisfaction. As well as fewer people suffering physical injury or death.By the time Paul left Alcoa, he’d improved the market value of Alcoa from $3 billion to over $27 billion.

(Video) What is Psychological Safety, and How do you create Psychological Safety at Work?

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The History of Psychological Safety

The term “psychological safety” itself is believed to have been first coined in 1954 by clinical psychologist Carl Rogers in a collection of papers on Creativity, collated by P E Vernon, in the context of establishing conditions where an individual feels they possess “unconditional worth“, and fostering an environment where external evaluation is absent.

Subsequently introduced into the field of management studies by Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis in the 1960s, psychological safety was first defined as group phenomenon that reduces interpersonal risk. To quote Schein and Bennis’s book“PERSONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGE THROUGH GROUP METHODS : THE LABORATORY APPROACH” in 1965, psychological safety reduces “a person’s anxiety about being basically accepted and worthwhile”.

Deming, in his 14 Points for Management, also raises the point of reducing fear of interpersonal risk taking in point 8:“Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company”. This highlights a growing change in sentiment at the time, away from reductionist and Taylorist views of workers towards more a progressive paradigm of empowerment and engagement to improve business outcomes.

“Wherever there is fear, there will be wrong figures.”

– W E Deming, The New Economics.

William Kahn, in 1990, renewed interest in psychological safety with his paper“Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work”where he described psychological safety as:

the sense of being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status or career. (p.705, Kahn, W.A., 1990. Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of management journal, 33(4), pp.692-724.) Kahn in this respect refers to an individual sense of safety, with the implication of a group dynamic that could result in negative consequences. As we’ll see, the concept has since expanded to explicitly describe a group phenomenon, under Amy Edmondson.

At the same time, progressive management paradigms such as safety culture, Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge, and theToyota Production System (TPS)were emerging that introduced concepts such as the theAndon Cord, which empowers employees to raise issues or concerns around safety and process (which is exactly what Paul O’Neill did at Alcoa).

Play Video about Tom Geraghty

What is Psychological Safety? – Psychological Safety (3)

The Current Definition of Psychological Safety

Subsequently, in 1999,Dr Amy Edmondson was studying clinical teams and the number of mistakes that different teams made. During her research she was surprised to find that the teams with a higher number of good outcomes actually made more mistakes than teams with fewer good outcomes. It was a surprising result, but after further investigation, Dr Edmondson discovered that in fact those teams with better outcomes wereadmittingmore mistakes, whilst the teams with fewer good outcomes were more likely tohidetheirs. As a result, Dr Edmondson codified the concept of psychological safety, namely: thebelief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.

“a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”– Psychological Safety and Learning Behaviour in Work Teams

Dr Edmondson showed that psychological safety was a key factor in team performance, and continues to lead the field in expounding the importance ofpsychological safety in all fields of work and life, and literallywrote the book on psychological safety.

This research built on the previous work by Schein, Bennis, Kahn and others to codify psychological safety and provide us with a more practical, actionable definition that aids practitioners (that is, me and you) to actually understand, foster and maintain psychological safety by asking:

Is it safe to speak up with ideas, questions, concerns, and mistakes in this group?

(Video) What is Psychological Safety | Intro to The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety

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Psychological Safety Underpins Team Performance

Think about thebest teamyou’ve been a member of. It could be a sports team, a business team, or some other group of people with a shared goal. Being a member of that team probably felt good, it may have even been energising and inspiring. Whilst the members of that team may well have been experts in their field, it’s likely that being a member of that team felt good because that team felt safe to be themselves. They, and you, likely felt free to admit mistakes, ask for help, and even challenge ideas from other team members without fear of humiliation or embarrassment.

Now think about one of theworst teamsyou’ve been a member of. Perhaps you felt that you had to put on a metaphorical “mask”, and be a different version of yourself in order to fit in. You may not have been able to admit mistakes, or ask for help, in case members of the team saw it as a weakness and used it against you. Chances are, you didn’t feel very “safe” in this team.

Think of these two teams when thinking about levels of psychological safety. Psychological safety isn’t a binary “on or off” factor, it’s a sliding scale. Teams (and members of those teams) possess it to varying degrees. The best team you’ve been on probably possessed a lot, whilst the worst probably did not possess much at all.

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The Difference Between Leadership and Management

It’s important to recognise the difference between these two practices. The indubitableGrace Hopper once stated that “You managethings, you leadpeople.” What she meant is that management consists of all the processes, tools, and controls that need to exist in order for people to work effectively, whilst leadership is far larger in scope and consists of, for example, setting direction, making strategic decisions, supporting and motivating people, and elevating people in order to reach their highest potential.

In practice, this means that neither management nor leadership can be neglected.

In order for people to perform well and possess psychological safety, they need to operate in environments wheresafety, costs, tools and processes are managed effectively. A team cannot deliver if they do not knowhow, or indeedwhatto deliver. Management is therefore part of leadership, and contributes to the “structure and clarity” thatGoogle’s Project Aristotleled by Julia Rozovsky in 2013 defined as the third most important factor in high performing teams. The Project Aristotle team uncovered four key factors (Dependability, Structure and Clarity, Meaning, and Impact) that are essential to team performance, but it was clear during the research that there remained one or more missing elements. The team discovered Edmondson’s 1999 research and applied the paper’s methodology to measure psychological safety. The results showed that “even the extremely smart, high-powered employees at Google needed a psychologically safe work environment to contribute the talents they had to offer”.

Google’s Project Aristotle was a turning point for psychological safety. It was enough proof for what we all intrinsically know – that feeling safe to be yourself as part of a team, where you’re able to contribute your ideas, admit mistakes, challenge others respectably, and try without fear of failure, is one of the most powerful aspects of human performance.

What is Psychological Safety? – Psychological Safety (6)

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Similarly, the 2019 and 2021 “State of DevOps” reportsconsistently show that psychological safety is an essential and foundational factor in software delivery team performance, and also to organisational performance more widely.

(Video) Psychological Safety | Steven Baert and Amy C. Edmondson

Westrum’s Cultural Typologies

Dr. Ron Westrum wrote in 2003 about “The Typologies of Organisational Cultures” that reflect how information flows through an organisation. He wrote: “organisational culture bears a predictive relationship with safety and that particular kinds of organisational culture improve safety…” That is: because the flow of information is influential and indicative of other aspects of culture, it can also be used to predict how organisations or parts of them will behave when problems arise.

Westrum was focussed on real-world physical safety measures in the realm of healthcare and aviation, but in our organisations we should also strive to adopt the same diligent approach to psychological safety for the sake not just of the products we build but for the humans on our teams as well.

See the table below forWestrum’s organisational typology model. Each column describes a broad cultural typology: Pathological, Bureaucratic, or Generative, and six aspects of those cultures. It is clear from the table that the Generative culture that Westrum describes is a broadly psychologically safe culture where team members cooperate, share their fears, admit failure and continually improve.

PathologicalBureaucraticGenerative
Power orientedRule orientedPerformance oriented
Low cooperationModest cooperationHigh cooperation
Messengers “shot”Messengers neglectedMessengers trained
Responsibilities shirkedNarrow responsibilitiesRisks are shared
Bridging discouragedBridging toleratedBridging encouraged
Failure leads to scapegoatingFailure leads to justiceFailure leads to inquiry
Novelty crushedNovelty leads to problemsNovelty implemented

The Westrum organisational typology model: How organizations process information ( Ron Westrum, “A typology of organisation culture),” BMJ Quality & Safety 13, no. 2 (2004), doi:10.1136/qshc.2003.009522.)

The Four Stages of Psychological Safety

Timothy R Clarke in his book “The Four Stages Of Psychological Safety”described a model of four “stages” of psychological safety that teams can move through, progressing fromstage 1 to stage 4. These are:

01

Inclusion Safety

Members feel safe to belong to the team

02

Learner Safety

Members are able to learn through asking questions

03

Contributor Safety

Members feel safe to contribute their own ideas

04

Challenger Safety

Members can question others’ ideas or suggest significant changes

Whilst “all models are wrong, and some are useful” applies in this case (people do not move linearly through stages 1-4, nor do the stages exist in discrete reality, The “four stages”can be a useful model to reinforce the point that psychological safety is not a binary “on/off” phenomenon: we all move through different degrees of psychological safety in different teams, contexts, times of day, etc.

Another useful model for team development isTuckman’s Model of Team Development, where teams “Form”, “Storm”, “Norm”, and finally, “Perform”. It is only in psychologically safe teams that true performance will be reached, since this stage requires the ability for team members to admit and learn from mistakes, and to contribute and challenge ideas. Reaching this stage, as a leader of a team, is one of your goals.

(Video) Better Leadership and Learning with Psychological Safety - ft. Amy Edmondson

Measuring Psychological Safety

It’s really important, and fortunately, really easy tomeasure psychological safety. You can do this in your team or across an entire organisation: one way to do it isvia a survey, which asks for agreement with multiple statements that reflect the degree of psychological safety on a team. This provides quantitative metrics that are really powerful in building psychological safety and ensuring momentum is maintained. Another way, particularly useful for short lived teams, is to use a more discursive method such as thepsychological safety matrix,which encourages people to describe where they are.

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Is it possible to be “too” psychologically safe?

In short, no. However, it’s important to distinguish psychological safety from existential or other kinds of safety. A mountaineering team climbing K2 require veryhigh degrees of psychological safetyin order to know that their teammates will support each other, and make it safe to raise concerns, however small. Their existential safety is very low, and they’re in real danger of dying on the mountain: but their high psychological safety aids in maximising their chance of success, and not dying on the mountain. Read more about whether a team can be “too safe” here.

The lesson: maximise the psychological safety of your teams, but do not shelter them from the real world. Building psychological safety doesn’t mean hiding the challenges ahead; quite the opposite.

The Three Fundamentals of Psychological Safety

There are three core leadership behaviourswhich support psychological safety in teams. These may seem simple, but in practice they extend to every single leadership behaviour and every single aspect of communication. Those three core behaviours (thanks to Amy Edmondson for codifying these) are:

  • Frame work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.Everything is an experiment. The outcome of work should not exclusively be the output; it must also be learning how to do it better next time.
  • Acknowledge your own fallibility. By admitting when you make a mistake or don’t know the answer, you allow (indeed, encourage) others to do the same.
  • Model curiosity and asking questions. Stay curious, ask other people what they think, and ask them to contribute. By asking questions and asking for help, you’re creating a space and a need for people to speak up, which is essential for psychological safety and for high performing teams.

Dr Amy Edmondson elucidates these core principles inThe Fearless Organization.

What is Psychological Safety? – Psychological Safety (8)

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Psychological Safety, Diversity and Inclusion

Research has shown that psychological safety moderates the relationship between team diversity and team innovation and performance by making it easier for teams to leverage the benefits of diversity through more open conversations and more respectful, engaged interactions. (Caruso and Woolley, 2008, in Edmondson and Lei, 2014.)

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Over the years, I haveused and evolvedthis interpretation of the interrelationship between psychological safety, inclusion, diversity and performance.Please consider this image open source – feel free to adapt, recreate, modify and use as you wish.

Here is anexcellent piece on diversity, psychological safety and performance, from Amy Edmondson and Henrik Bresman. The authors show, through research in pharmaceutical teams, that diversity enables performance, but only if combined with psychological safety. You can see in this chart below the relation between performance and diversity, mediated by psychological safety (red dots).

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The Benefits of Psychological Safety:

  1. Increased likelihood of successful innovation, resulting inquicker time-to-market.
  2. An increased ability to learn from mistakes, resulting infewer problems or outages, higher quality, and improved governance and controls.
  3. Increased reporting of concerns and security issues, resulting indecreased risk of security, health and safety or non-compliance incidents.
  4. Increased employee engagement, resulting in lower churn rates anddecreased costsrelated to recruitment and absenteeism.
  5. Improved reputation resulting in anincreased ability to recruitthe best people.
  6. Increased profitabilityas a result of all of the above.

Fundamentally, building psychological safety is not only the right thing to do for members of your teams, but it’s the right thing to do for your business or your organisation.

Download yourPsychological Safety Toolkitto measure, build and maintain psychological safety in your teams.

For more information about high performing teams and psychological safety or for training, consulting or workshops,please get in touch.

(Video) What is Psychological Safety, and why is it important?

Videos

1. The importance of psychological safety: Amy Edmondson
(The King's Fund)
2. What Is Psychological Safety In The Workplace?
(Chad Littlefield)
3. Achieving psychological safety
(Simon Sinek)
4. Building a psychologically safe workplace | Amy Edmondson | TEDxHGSE
(TEDx Talks)
5. Psychological Safety
(Clinical Excellence Commission)
6. Psychological Safety
(THNK School of Creative Leadership)

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