"Psychological safety" — the belief that taking risks, admitting mistakes, and asking questions can be done without fear of negative consequences — is vital to a team's performance. Writing for Harvard Business Review, Amy Gallo explains why the idea is important, and offers four tips on making your workplace psychologically safe.
According to Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School who coined the phrase "team psychological safety," psychological safety is a "felt permission for candor" in the workplace.
Edmondson first developed the term when studying the relationship between error making and teamwork in hospitals. She found that teams who reported having better teamwork also experienced more errors, and after more research, she found that better teams were more willing to report their mistakes because they felt safe doing so.
"This is a group level phenomenon — it shapes the learning behavior of the group and in turn affects team performance and therefore organizational performance," Edmondson said.
According to Gallo, psychological safety helps team members feel more engaged and motivated. It can also lead to better decision-making and foster a culture of continuous learning and improvement.
This has been borne out in research by Edmondson as well. In that research, called Project Aristotle, over 30 statistical models with hundreds of variables were used to understand what impacted team effectiveness at Google. The research found that who was on a team mattered less than how well they worked together, and the most important factor of all was psychological safety.
Other research has found that not having psychological safety can have significant negative impacts on employee well-being, including rates of stress, burnout, turnover, and poor overall performance.
Psychological safety is especially important in work environments where employees need to use their discretion, Gallo writes.
"The relationship between psychological safety and performance is stronger in situations where the results or work aren't prescribed, when you're doing something creative, novel, or truly collaborative," Edmondson said.
According to Edmondson, there are seven markers of a psychologically safe work environment:
1. If you make a mistake, it's not held against you
2. Team members are able to bring up problems and difficult issues
3. Team members sometimes accept others for being different
4. It's safe for team members to take risks
5. It's not difficult for team members to ask for help
6. No one on the team would deliberately undermine another
7. Each team member's unique skills and talents are valued and utilized
If you want to foster psychological safety in your work environment, Edmondson notes that "it's more magic than science" and it's important for managers to remember it's "a climate that we co-create, sometimes in mysterious ways."
However, she offers four tips on how to create a psychologically safe work environment:
1. Make it clear why your employees' voices matter
Most people feel safer staying quiet and default to keeping their ideas and opinions to themselves, Gallo writes. "You have to override that instinct by setting the stage for them to speak up," Edmondson said.
Clearly explain why you need to hear from your team members, why their viewpoint and input is important, and how it will affect the work.
2. Admit that you're fallible
If a leader is able to admit and demonstrate how they've learned from their mistakes, it makes it easier for others to do the same, Gallo writes. It's important for leaders to model the behavior they wish to see from their team.
3. Invite input
Don't assume that people will tell you what they think or that they'll understand when you want their input, Gallo writes. "Explicitly request it," Edmondson said. She recommends asking open-ended questions like, "What are you seeing?" or "What are your thoughts on this?"
4. Respond productively
Even if you tell someone you want their input or mistakes are okay, they won't do them if they feel they're being blamed or shut down, Gallo writes. Edmondson recommends considering how you respond when people speak up with feedback or an idea, adding that you should be "appreciative and forward-thinking."
It's also important to replace blame with curiosity. According to author and coach Laura Delizonna, "If team members sense that you're trying to blame them for something, you become their saber-toothed tiger … The alternative to blame is curiosity. If you believe you already know what the other person is thinking, then you're not ready to have a conversation. Instead, adopt a learning mindset, knowing you don't have all the facts."
Edmondson notes that it's important to remember psychological safety isn't all about being nice, and there are many workplaces that are not psychologically safe because there's no candor and people feel they have to be silent because of politeness.
"Unfortunately, at work, nice is often synonymous with not being candid," Edmondson said.
She also noted that you won't necessarily always feel comfortable in a psychologically safe work environment. "Too many people think that it's about feeling comfortable all the time and that you can't say anything that makes someone else uncomfortable or you're violating psychological safety," Edmondson said.
Learning and making mistakes is often uncomfortable, Gallo writes. The important thing is to take risks in a safe environment. "Candor is hard but non-candor is worse," Edmondson said. (Gallo, Harvard Business Review, 2/15)
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