6 Key Elements of a Psychologically Safe Workplace

Without psychological safety, individuals focus on “impression management” and can’t show up wholly, using their voice and daring their perspectives. When companies crack psychological safety, they liberate their employees to be effective and focus on their contribution to the organizational vision.

When Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson originally coined the term “psychological safety,” she used the following set of questions to measure it:

  1. If you make a mistake on your team, is it held against you?
  2. Are you able to bring up problems and tough issues?
  3. Do people on the team sometimes reject others for being different?
  4. Is it safe to take a risk?
  5. Is it difficult to ask other team members for help?
  6. Do people on the team deliberately act to undermine your efforts?
  7. Are your unique skills and talents valued and utilized?

The questions illustrate the obvious: a lack of psychological safety keeps focus contracted, protective and insular. In his book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek wrote about creating a “Circle of Safety” around people in the organization to reduce being focused on internal fears and free up their energy to focus on external issues and seize big opportunities.

What is Psychological Safety and Why it’s Important

Psychological safety is the perception that it’s safe to take interpersonal risks within a team: to speak up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes without fear of social punishment or humiliation.  

Without psychological safety, individuals focus on “impression management” and can’t show up wholly, using their voice and daring their perspectives. Rather than risk making a negative impression and any negative consequences, employees will refrain from asking questions, admitting weaknesses or mistakes, offering left-field ideas or challenging the status quo. They block their instincts.

Organizational disadvantages from a lack of psychological safety include stressed employees who are disengaged and risk-averse, inaccurate reporting, stifled creativity and innovation, lack of constructive feedback and losing the catalytic friction of conflicting perspectives. Psychological safety is a performance matter - and a prerequisite for adaptive and innovative performance.

Edmonson has defined psychologically safety as “a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” According to Dr. Timothy Clark that trust must extend to: 

  • inclusion safety: to feel included, like they belong, safe to be themselves, and accepted
  • learning safety: to feel safe to learn and grow, ask questions, experiment and make mistakes
  • contributor safety: to feel safe to use skills and abilities to make a meaningful difference
  • challenger safety: to feel safe to speak up and challenge the status quo or voice opportunities to make things better

Six Factors That Help Create Psychological Safety

Here’s what organizations that cultivate psychological safety work to create:

1) Teams are Lead with an Inclusion-Orientation.

McKinsey has found inclusive leaders have the strongest influence on a team’s psychological safety. Inclusive team leaders create a positive team climate by role modeling and reinforcing mindsets and behaviors as expectations that other team members adopt, creating new norms over time. As opposed to authoritative command-and-control mode, consultative (welcoming input and considering it in decision-making) and supportive (caring for team members) leadership styles build up positive team climates with psychological safety, so the potential of teams can be taken even further into challenge territory.

Self-awareness is necessary for emotional intelligence and creating psychological safety. Leaders that can self-reflect around their own bias, default patterns and typical responses can understand where they may be blocking approachability, open-mindedness and idea sharing. They also set clear expectations, demonstrate integrity of word and communicate transparently.

2) Diversity of Thought and Perspectives is Sought After.

Creativity thrives at the crossroads of different perspectives, so psychology safety is the #1 essential ingredient for team success. When team leaders suspend judgement, create room for and call out underrepresented voices, solicit alternatives and counter opinions to challenge group-think, and ask team members to challenge their own views, they illustrate openness to the best idea coming from anywhere and that they value and expect diversity of thought. 

Inclusive leaders increase sharing safety through active and curious listening - showing engagement, ensuring they different perspectives and asking questions to build on thoughts. They address unconscious and overt dynamics that suppress differing viewpoints, and provide multiple channels for inputting. They also express appreciation for the act of sharing viewpoints and insights, regardless of where decisions land, and give visible and proper accreditation for ideas and contributions, letting other’s voices shine.

3) Conflict is Managed Directly With Curiosity and Care. 

Inclusive leaders encourage healthy conflict as a way to strengthen ideas. They may support team members on how to share, receive and respond to feedback. For example, framing questions that help to respectfully debate ideas without seeming to be judging them. Or using affirmative language to open, not shut down, the exploration of possibilities. 

They set a baseline of respect for conduct in the team that facilitates sharing different perspectives. They navigate conflicting viewpoints back towards productive debate rather than conversational gridlock. They intervene when behaviors that erode psychological safety occur - such as undermining another team members voice or degrading remarks - and make clear how this impedes inclusion, creativity and innovation.

Inclusive leaders handle conflict directly, rather than letting it fester or corrode psychological safety. They are also willing to be disagreed with - meeting challenges or criticism with curiosity rather than defaulting to defensiveness.

4) The Culture Nurtures Learning, Growth and Creativity. 

Blame-based cultures are unforgiving and perfectionist-forming. Rather than getting innovation from their employees, they leave little room for experimenting or making the mistakes that come with learning and growth. Coaching cultures view mistakes as valuable learning opportunities on the way to developing new skills and finding novel solutions. Instead of blame, psychologically safe cultures focus forward on learning and solutions.  

Companies that depend upon creativity encourage risk-taking, sharing incomplete work and half-thoughts, and then learning and inspiring each other by developing ideas together. Encouraging the vulnerability to share thoughts and problems, without having to have all the answers, allows issues and ideas to bubble up to attention faster. Organizations which cultivate a growth mindset – and normalize failures – have happier employees and more innovative teams and culture.

5) Relating is Built on Connectedness and Feedback. 

Connection is at the heart of psychological safety. Inclusive managers don’t assume they know how others want to be treated, or that they have the same preferences as “I” do, so they take the time to find out. They develop one-on-one connections, ask open-ended questions, show interest in and concern for individuals, and check-in regularly to support a feedback loop (especially among remote offices). They also catalyze connectedness within and across teams.

Honest feedback is core to a psychologically safe workplace, including knowing how different groups are experiencing the workplace with real-time data. Inclusive cultures provide open channels for feedback to leadership to empower voices, and leaders show they are listening to input, acknowledge the feedback and are responsive in making changes and improvements.

6) Leaders Who Are Human and Real, Too.

For a culture to embody psychologically safety, leaders must also do what they say, not just say it. When leaders show empathy and vulnerability, admit fallibility and share their mistakes in the growth journey, they give permission. Leaders who own and are accountable to mistakes garner more credibility for it.

Further, this means having leaders and managers who set boundaries around an always-on mentality to model that employees are seen as individuals with a life outside of work and who participate in flexible work arrangements to show employees won’t be penalized for doing so. It means a willingness to receive support and learn from others, even at the top.

When companies crack psychological safety, they liberate their employees to be effective and focus on their contribution to the organizational vision. 


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