What is psychological safety?

Psychological Safety
You may have never used the exact terminology before, but if you’ve ever felt secure, safe or content within a team you might well have been experiencing what is known as psychological safety. Psychological safety is a critical building-block of the continuous improvement process.

Psychological Safety Defined

Psychological safety is defined as, “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career”. In other words, psychological safety means team members feel accepted and respected within their current roles.

The notion of psychological safety was first introduced by organizational behavioral scientist, Amy Edmondson, who coined the phrase and defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

“It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves,” states Edmondson.

It wasn’t until Google realized how important psychological safety is that most people began to take it seriously. Google wanted to find out what it takes to build the most effective team possible, so they launched Project Aristotle.

It was a mammoth task, consisting of hundreds of interviews and the analysis of data taken from over 100 active teams at Google. Interestingly, the key finding was that above all else, psychological safety was crucial to ensuring that a team works well together.

Why is psychological safety so important? 

As Project Aristotle highlighted, creating an environment of psychological safety moves the needle in a meaningful way. In addition to the findings from Google, research by Baer and Frese suggests that psychological safety being present in a working environment improves the likelihood that an attempted process/innovation will be successful. It has been found to:

  • Improve employee retention
  • Employees are more like to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates
  • Revenue per employee increases
  • They’re rated twice as effective by executive-level managers.

How to create an environment of psychological safety?

During her TEDx Talk on “Building a psychologically safe workplace”, Amy Edmondson pointed out that there three main things to consider when trying to create psychological safety in teams:

  • Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem
  • Acknowledge your own fallibility
  • The research carried out by Edmondson and Google suggests that teams that make mistakes but are more willing to discuss them with each other.
  • Model curiosity and ask lots of questions

With Edmondson’s factors taken into consideration, here are some ways you can encourage and cultivate an environment of psychological safety

  1. Gather people’s opinions on important decisions in writing before you meet to discuss them (we recommend doing weekly check-ins)
  2. Ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to put forward their ideas before you announce which ideas you support
  3. Always try and experiment using multiple plausible arguments/ideas, rather than settling for one option
  4. Hold group discussions in meetings if there are disagreements rather than keeping things between two or three people
  5. Appreciate when team members take the time and effort to challenge your views
  6. Make a point of ensuring that other team members who have less authority on paper have their voice heard – adding a “no interruption” rule can help quieter team members have their say as well.

How to measure?

In an attempt to make your team more successful, you first need to establish a baseline and measure improvements over time. You might think you have a good feel for your team, but it’s surprising what you’ll learn when you actually measure for psychological safety.

In order to measure this, Edmondson asked team members how strongly they agreed or disagreed with these questions:

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you?
  2. Are members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues?
  3. Have people on this team sometimes rejected others for being different?
  4. Is it safe to take a risk on this team?
  5. Is it difficult to ask other members of this team for help?
  6. Would no one on this team deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts?
  7. When working with members of this team, are my unique skills and talents valued and utilized?

In conclusion

In summary, if you’d like to have a more innovative, engaged and effective team, then creating an environment of psychological safety is worth cultivating.