Psychological safety in the workplace
By Eileen Hogan, M.S., Ed.S.,
Assistant Vice President, Senior Consultant
You may have heard the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast”; sometimes lunch and dinner are included, too. Simply put, the health and quality of the (living) culture will significantly impact how effectively your organization can execute its strategy. It does not matter how good your strategy is. If the living practices of your culture are not aligned with what you are trying to do, you will not get it done effectively or efficiently.
In the same line of thinking, psychological safety can eat your culture. The level of psychological safety in your organization is directly influencing the health of your culture and subsequently, your ability to successfully execute your strategy.
Psychological safety, defined
The concept of psychological safety was initially identified by Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School. It is broadly defined as a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves and is related to a person’s perspective on how threatening or rewarding it is to take interpersonal risks at work. Psychological safety is not the same as being nice. Being nice is important but is not necessarily helpful when it is used to avoid dealing with issues. And psychological safety is not the same as trust. With trust, you control whether or not you offer people the benefit of the doubt when you are taking a risk. With psychological safety, you are relying on the people you are being vulnerable with to give you the benefit of doubt and you do not have control.
When there is high psychological safety, people feel accepted and respected, are willing to speak up, ask questions, raise concerns, share controversial ideas, disagree with persons in higher positions of power, admit mistakes, give candid feedback, seek candid feedback, ask for help, learn from each other, and stick up for each other in times of adversity. People feel safe to address the elephant in the room. High psychological safety is a key factor in individual, team, and organizational performance. In Google’s landmark study, Project Aristotle (2016), they identified psychological safety as the key factor on the highest performing teams.
When there is low psychological safety, people tend to operate from fear and try to cover their tracks to avoid negative consequences. People tend to believe there will be repercussions (e.g., being rebuked, embarrassed, humiliated, marginalized, or punished) for speaking up with ideas, questions, or concerns or for admitting an error or making a mistake. So people become silent and play it safe; they stay in their lanes, try not to rock the boat, and play not to lose, instead of playing to win.
Some leaders like it this way. They just want people to come to work and do their job. It may even feel easier to lead these people because they do what they’re told, they don’t ask the hard questions, and they don’t push back. How could this possibly work against an organization?
The answer lies in what we what we don’t hear. When employees are not asking questions or sharing concerns, leaders miss critical information that could impact client service, quality, and productivity. When people are not offering ideas, innovation suffers. When people are not admitting mistakes, problems are hidden and often escalate. As formerly passionate employees stay in their lanes and try not to rock the boat, silos are reinforced, often creating inefficiencies, redundancies, and rework. Decision-making is less effective. Employee engagement declines. Turnover increases. Bottom line, we leave way too much potential on the table.
If you have never experienced feeling psychologically unsafe, it may be hard to imagine why or how someone might get there. It can be easy to believe that it must be a personal issue for the individual: "There must be something wrong with them. And surely, they should be responsible for fixing it so they can bring more of their potential to the organization. After all, they are being paid to do their job.” While this approach might sound plausible and supports getting work done, work does not get done in a way that builds a healthy culture and supports long-term growth of the organization.
Mind and body, combined
So how does psychological safety even become an issue? People do not wake up and decide they want to feel psychologically unsafe. It is a fundamental human need, just one level beyond our basic physiological needs of water, food, warmth, and rest. It is actually a necessary condition to support higher-level needs related to belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. When someone feels psychologically safe, oxytocin levels rise. Oxytocin is a ‘feel-good’ hormone that allows people to experience more positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration. People become more open-minded, creative, resilient, motivated, and persistent. People exhibit behaviors like speaking up, asking questions, raising concerns, sharing controversial ideas, admitting mistakes, giving candid feedback, and addressing the elephant in the room. We actually need people doing these things for our organizations to thrive. And people do these things with good intentions, wanting to make things better for clients, for teammates, for the organization.
Sometimes, leaders are not prepared to handle these behaviors effectively. They may think their power, authority, or competence is being challenged when people raise concerns about a decision, ask too many questions or offer “out-of-the-box” ideas—and they may react by dismissing or ignoring the concerns or by telling an employee to stay in their lane and just do their job. They may think their own success is being threatened when an employee misses a deadline or makes a mistake—and they may react by punishing or threatening the employee. They may not like the way an employee is asking questions or sharing concerns—and they may criticize the employee.
When employees experience these reactions from leaders and believe these are repercussions for their behavior, their psychological safety is threatened and the brain shifts into survival mode. Various neurochemicals flood the brain, including cortisol (associated with stress), adrenaline (associated with competitiveness), noradrenaline (associated with hyper-arousal), and testosterone (associated with aggression), which work together to create a fight, flight, or freeze reaction and keep people focused on defending themselves. In this mode, the brain is simply reacting; it is not actively thinking. People go into protective mode, trying to avoid negative outcomes and not repeat painful experiences, and their performance declines.
Just like that, we have an unhealthy dynamic that is serving neither employees nor the organization well. Sorting out who is responsible for what is not as helpful as simply recognizing that psychological safety may be an opportunity in your organization and making a choice to address it. Both leaders and employees play a role in creating and growing from psychological safety issues. We’ll start with your role as a leader because power differentials, whether positional or perceived, often contribute to the issues. The person who perceives they have less power is more likely to experience lower psychological safety. Since their brain energy will be primarily focused on protection, much less brain energy will be available for clear thinking and problem-solving. Leaders can help move things forward by engaging in behaviors that are more likely to support higher psychological safety.
While there are several things a leader can do to have a positive impact on psychological safety, perhaps one of the most important and impactful is to cultivate curiosity. Basically, curiosity is the desire to learn or know more about something or someone. This sounds simple enough. In reality, though, it can be challenging because in many respects, it requires us to be vulnerable. We have to recognize and accept we do not have all the answers, be willing to ask more questions, uncover biases and assumptions that drive our decisions, seek out ideas and opinions that may be different than our own, be open to hearing difficult feedback, and push outside our comfort zones. Being vulnerable opens up the door for us to feel threatened or challenged which, in turn, may cause us to react in ways that can damage psychological safety for others.
How do we exhibit curiosity with respect to psychological safety? It starts with being open to the idea that some people might be feeling psychologically unsafe, validating their experiences, and accepting you might be contributing to the situation. It continues with gathering information about the basis of the issue (see sidebar) and asking the team what they think can be done to make a positive difference. It challenges you to implement the changes the team suggested, even if it requires a change in your behavior, and then getting feedback from the team on how to do it even better. It encourages you repeat the process, again and again and again, to drive ongoing improvements.
Consider having your team rate the following statements:
- In this team, it is easy to discuss difficult issues and problems.
- In this team, people are sometimes rejected for being different.
- It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
- When someone makes a mistake in this team, it is often held against him or her.
- It is completely safe to take a risk on this team.
- Members of this team value and respect each other’s contributions.
- No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines another team member’s efforts.
- The unique skills and talents of all team members are valued and utilized effectively.
Growing our curiosity skillset supports the use of useful skills, too, related to increasing psychological safety.
We can use curiosity to reframe failure into learning opportunities by asking “What can we learn from this?” Instead of blaming mode, we can shift into coaching mode and provide a safe environment for people to practice, make mistakes, and grow from them.
We can use curiosity to celebrate conflict. What? Celebrate conflict? Who does that? Curiosity does that! Conflict creates an opportunity to understand what is important to people and to develop win-win solutions for the people and the organization. We can ask “What is this conflict really about? What is important to the different people involved here? What is important about this issue?” We can approach conflict as a collaborator, not as an adversary. We can recognize the judgments we are contributing to the conflict and move them out of the way. We can generate innovative solutions instead of ignoring conflict and letting it fester beneath the surface.
We can use curiosity to embrace people. We can challenge ourselves to understand where people are and meet them there. We can seek out ways to treat people in ways that are meaningful to them. We can practice appreciative responses by recognizing the courage it takes to ask questions or share concerns. We can experiment with ways to provide more helpful feedback more often: people need to know how they are doing in order to know how they can grow. We can learn to seek out feedback for ourselves, from peers and people who report to us. And then we can ask those same people for ideas on how we can improve in our opportunity areas.
We can use curiosity to provide safe and supportive environments for people. We can ask what resources and information they need to perform their best and, as best we can, make sure people have access to them. We can encourage teams to develop “safe space agreements” for their teams by identifying shared values, beliefs and behaviors related to what being safe looks like on the team. We can help teams learn how to talk about what’s not working and generate solutions to move forward.
Curiosity: one skill, many benefits. Start practicing today. It is like listening. You can be good at it and you can always get better at it. No harm can come from effectively using listening or curiosity.
Individuals have responsibility, too, when it comes to psychological safety. As a leader, you must know that individuals cannot do it alone. Due to power differentials, the work that leaders do to build psychological safety is critical to support the work individuals can do. As an individual, you can develop curiosity: be willing to explore what is driving your own self-protective reactions to feeling rebuked, embarrassed, humiliated, marginalized, or punished for their behavior. Likewise, be willing to consider that you may be misinterpreting someone else’s behaviors or intentions or that you were missing information—and be curious about changing your mind.
Beyond curiosity, build up courage to be vulnerable and ask questions, share concerns, offer “out-of-the-box” ideas, give candid feedback, etc. Practice getting up and back into the game when you get knocked down. Developing these skills often requires a deep level of self-awareness and self-motivation to move away from default patterns and towards more effective patterns. These concepts are explored more fully in other whitepapers, articles, and blogs available through The BB&T Leadership Institute.
Bottom line, growing and maintaining psychological safety is not just a good idea, it is necessary for great business outcomes. When people feel psychologically safe, they contribute and perform at higher levels. Supporting psychological safety is an ongoing practice, not an end state. You have to pay attention to it over time. Things can be great in one moment and fall off the rails in the next. Psychological safety needs to be tended over time. It is built and maintained moment by moment and day by day, person by person and team by team. The work is simple—cultivate curiosity—although not necessarily easy. It requires intention and effort to be impactful. Leaders and employees both have a role and responsibility related to improving psychological safety; leaders must do their work to provide support for employees to do their work. Cultivating psychological safety may seem like an unnecessary and time-consuming distraction from getting things done and moving the business ahead. Remember, it’s just a trade-off: spend the time and energy to build and maintain psychological safety or spend more time, more energy, and more money to offset the impacts of low psychological safety.
Learn more about other leadership programs
As a consultant at The BB&T Leadership Institute, Eileen Hogan develops and delivers solutions for leadership and organizational effectiveness. Hogan earned a bachelor’s degree computer engineering from Michigan State University and a master’s in counseling and education specialist degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Hogan maintains the N.C. Licensed Professional Counselor credential.
The BB&T Leadership Institute
During the past half-century, The BB&T Leadership Institute, and its predecessor firm Farr Associates, have developed and refined approaches to business leadership through collaborative work with clients throughout the United States. The BB&T Leadership Institute provides organizations with a leadership development partner who helps create dynamic and effective leaders, increase employee retention and improve the bottom line.
Edmondson, Amy C. The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. (2018). Wiley.
Frazier, M. Lance; Fainshmidt, Stav; Klinger, Ryan L.; Pezeshkan, Amir; and Vracheva, Veselina, "Psychological Safety(opens in a new tab): A Meta‐Analytic Review and Extension" (2017).Management Faculty Publications. 13.
Hirsch, Wendy. Five Questions about psychological safety, answered. (2017)
Kahn, William A. (1990-12-01). "Psychological Conditions(opens in a new tab)of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work". Academy of Management Journal. 33(4): 692–724. doi:10.2307/256287. ISSN 0001-4273. JSTOR 256287
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