Psychological Safety — What It Is, What It Isn’t, Why Does It Matter and How To Measure It? (Part I) — Fit To Lead
Psychological safety is the bedrock of a successful culture; it’s the engine that facilitates engagement, innovation, learning and productivity. Take the short quiz to see how your team is doing.
For many years I worked in a psychologically unsafe environment. I was unhappy at work and happy outside work. I didn’t pay much attention to it because I was focused on making money and we were pretty successful (or so I thought).
As there was little psychological safety, stress levels were high and the survival response was triggered much of the time rather than the performance response. I ended up getting burnt out. The unhappiness at work came from multiple factors including:
- Controlled — not having autonomy to make decisions
- Inauthentic — not bringing my whole self to work and hiding a big part of myself
- Scared to voice my opinions and thoughts — only voicing my thoughts when they were fully formed/100% perfect
- Opting for silence — being unable to speak up when I didn’t agree with something
- Afraid to admit mistakes — fearful of being judged and ridiculed
- Not showing vulnerability — belief that vulnerability would be seen as weakness
When I left that team and organisation I could sense a huge weight drop off my shoulders. I did not bring my best self to that organisation and I was determined to never work in an environment like that again. I realised there is an impermeable membrane between work and out of work. If I spend the majority of my time working and if I want to be truly happy, I need to be happy both at home and at work.
I have no doubt we could have achieved so much more as a team if we had understood the importance of psychological safety. The debates would have been more fruitful, the ideas would have been better formed and we would have made better decisions.
Psychological safety is the engine of high performance. It is the key ingredient you need to put in the cake mix if you are going to get the best out of each other and your team.
Creating a psychological safe culture is not a nice to have, it’s simply one of the most important things a leader can do. No cultural initiative or individual or team development programme can succeed without first creating psychological safety.
Building and maintaining psychological safety is a key part of my CEO, founder and team coaching work.
I have divided the topic of psychological safety into two essays. The first essay dives into what psychological safety actually is and what it isn’t, why it is so important and how to measure it using a short survey.
In the second essay, which I have co-written with my team coaching colleague Anu Arora, we describe how to develop psychological safety in your teams and culture using The Ladder of Vulnerability.
What is psychological safety?
As humans we are continually searching for safety. Our foraging ancestors required belonging and connection to feel safe and to actually be safe. Safety is a fundamental need as expressed by Maslow and his hierarchy of needs framework.
Organisational behavioural scientist Amy Edmondson, who popularised the term psychological safety in her excellent book The Fearless Organisation, defined psychological safety in the workplace as:
“ The belief that one will not get punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
However, the definition that resonates with me the most, partly due its simplicity, comes from Dr Timothy Clark, the author of the book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, who defines psychological safety “ as an environment of rewarded vulnerability. “
All of us will have experienced being in both unsafe and safe environments. You feel it physically. When you are feeling safe, your whole body knows, you can relax, and you can think clearly. The psychological safety experience is an embodied one.
Psychological safety is a group construct. The team is giving you the benefit of doubt, giving you an environment which is safe for risk-taking, speaking your mind and challenging the status quo.
Psychological safety is about finding and giving your voice.
Psychological safety when present is easy to spot. It shows up in how people interact. This chart enumerates what you see when psychological safety is there and on the flip side, when it is absent, what you don’t:
You will see psychological safety at work from the behaviours of the team and its members.
At its core psychological safety is about being human. Creating an environment where people can grow, create and contribute.
Psychological safety is a continuum not binary or something you turn off and on. It’s not whether you have it or not but how much. Teams (and individual members of those teams) possess it to varying degrees. The best teams will have had plenty of it, whilst the poor teams will not have had much of it at all.
The development of psychological safety is a continuing learning process, there’s never an end.
Psychological safety is not like a trophy that you bring out every so often and dust down, it needs to be out on show every day.
You should be asking yourself continually — how is interaction moving us towards or away from psychological safety?
Why does psychological safety matter in a team?
Choosing to build psychological safety, shows an ambition to build a successful and transformational company. Psychological safety will give you a competitive advantage.
Each time I have seen a lack of psychological safety in a team or a company something pretty catastrophic happens. It might take time for this event to occur but it does and it will.
Here are 6 reasons why psychological safety matters:
Think about the best team you have been part of. It might have been a sports or work team with a shared purpose where team members are interdependent on each other. Being part of that team felt good; it was energising and motivational. You felt free to be yourself.
Research by Google — code-named Project Aristotle — concluded surprisingly that the single most important ingredient that a team must possess in order to perform at its highest potential is psychological safety. Team success was more about how the team works together, rather than who is in the team.
When team members feel safe, team members offer performance responses i.e. engagement, contributing all that they can, playing offence. If it’s unsafe, team members offer survival responses i.e. managing personal risk, loss avoidance, self-preservation.
Team psychological safety doesn’t guarantee high performance but without it, it is very unlikely to happen and if it does it’s only for a short period.
Imagine how many ideas were never voiced because a team member didn’t feel safe sharing.
Team members are more likely to express half-formed ideas in a safe environment, which in itself improves the potential for innovation and creativity. Perfection of ideas and opinions can be a barrier to progress or result in missed opportunities.
Team members in a psychologically safe environment are bringing their best selves, their best thinking, to the meetings/debates. Team members ask questions, share information, and explore ideas in a positive and respectful way.
Team members have the courage to speak. All voices are heard and listened to. Not just the confident extroverts and leaders but also the newly recruited interns and the quiet introverts.
Beyond the airing of ideas there is healthy debate about them in a psychological safe environment. Ideas are not ridiculed but are nurtured through curiosity and healthy debate.
One of Amy Edmondson’s surprising findings in her book The Fearless Organisation was that the high performing hospitals (which all had psychologically safe environments) reported more errors than the poor performing ones. When she delved into it she discovered the reason was that team members felt free to express their concerns to leaders and their colleagues.
Sadly in the hospitals without psychological safety there were sometimes dire consequences including a situation where patients were given the wrong dosage of chemotherapy resulting in death.
In a psychological safe company, more near misses are spotted because mistakes are admitted or concerns are raised early, allowing the team to reflect, learn and course correct.
In a psychologically safe environment there is a more positive attitude towards failure in the form of making and reporting mistakes.
Fast growing companies in particular cannot afford to lose their people and all the knowledge they have. High employee turnover is not sustainable for successful businesses due to the high costs that come with interviewing, hiring and training new team members. Your high performers in particular will not tolerate a lack of psychological safety at work.
According to data from Pew Research Center, 89% of Americans say creating a safe and respectful workplace is essential. Bottom line is you are more likely to leave a company where you do not feel safe; I can personally vouch for this!
A toxic unsafe culture, characterised by disrespect and unethical actions, is over 10 times more likely to lead to staff turnover than pay.
Psychologically safe culture can be a major driver of retention.
Most of us would agree that more diverse teams are more likely to outperform less diverse ones — different perspectives, ideas and viewpoints will lead to better decisions and more creativity.
But unfortunately the reality is that diverse teams often underperform. Why? Often it is because leaders and teams do not know how to handle the diversity which they sought in the first place.
Amy Edmondson, in a study of 62 drug development teams, discovered that the key to unlocking the magic of diverse teams was psychological safety.
Safe workplaces welcome diverse teams. They allow all team members to flourish regardless of gender, race or background. Different perspectives are seen as a source of value, each person is properly listened to and the team has the skills to bridge the differences.
Psychological safety is the absence of interpersonal fear. Fear might drive you for a while but if it is consistently high you will burn yourself out as happened to me.
Not being able to express yourself or feeling shamed by your colleague can lead to shutting down your best self and a sinking of your self-esteem.
Lack of emotional support can leave you feeling alone and disengaged where you’re meant to feel connected and energised.
Fear of making a mistake and not being able to report it can lead to anxiety and fear symptoms.
One of the key findings from Google’s Project Aristotle was that no one wants to leave part of their personality at home and feel the need to put on a ‘work face’. Not being able to be yourself is very expensive emotionally and mentally.
People want to feel fully present at work and to feel free to share things that worries or annoys them without fear of recriminations. People want to be able to be open and honest and talk about the messy things. People want to be at work without interpersonal fear.
In a psychologically safe workplace, where you feel able to be yourself, where you feel respected, valued and listened to, you are much more likely to be happy and be mentally and emotionally healthy. And with a better well being you get better performance.
Take this short quiz to measure your psychological safety
Before you start diving into how to improve psychological safety within your team or company, it’s worth assessing the level of psychological safety to discover what’s really going on.
Psychological safety emerges from a combination of our individual psychology and the dynamics of the team. So in order to measure psychological safety you need data on both the individual team members and the team.
Although qualitative data would be very useful and necessary to get a full picture, many of us don’t have time for lengthy interviews, and therefore choose to go for the quantitative approach using a short survey which is easy to administer.
Psychological Safety Quiz — Individual
Here are 10 questions related to each team member. Just answer the questions as honestly as you can. 4 times or more is 3 points, 2–3 times is 2 points, once is 1 point and not once is zero points.
The range of scores are from 0 to 30. As a broad indicator 21–30 would suggest this team has high levels of stress and is a dangerous place to be. A score between 10–20 points indicates there is lack of psychological safety which will contribute to team dysfunction. A score below 10 suggests this team is working hard to create psychological safety.
Psychological Safety Quiz — Team
The range of scores are from 0 to 15. Any score over 9 would indicate psychological safety needs some urgent attention.
Psychological safety can be destroyed very easily but it can also be built back up. It is a dynamic and delicate phenomenon which with persistence and skill can be created and maintained.
Great culture starts with psychological safety
Culture eats strategy for breakfast is the commonly heard saying. I don’t subscribe to that as I think strategy is equally as important as culture. You should eat strategy and culture in a balanced granola mix to maximize the probability of success.
So if culture is so important, we need to create one by design rather than by default. And as with any great design, we need strong foundations. The foundations of a great culture is psychological safety.
Psychological safety is the most important variable in team performance according to research. It is vital for inclusivity, innovation and learning.
But don’t be fooled into thinking psychological safety is a soft touch where we are floating around being nice to each other. A psychological safe team and company will experience conflict, debate, disagreement, challenge and discomfort. But because it is underpinned by respect, compassion and support it will lead to performance based responses not survival responses.