Psychological safety – Does your company culture have it?

Psychological safety - Does your company culture have it?

I recently heard a peer of mine say – “psychological safety – you know when you have it, and you know when you don’t.”  And I couldn’t agree more.

Over the years I’ve worked with teams, who from the first session I can tell if there’s a strong sense of psychological safety, or if everyone’s treading on eggshells. Let’s just say, it’s a combat signal I now have a heightened sense of. 

Sometimes it’s not even obvious things, but in body language, tone of voice, language, and even how the atmosphere drops as soon as one individual walks into the room. 

You may be sitting there wondering, what on earth is this “psychological safety” term you keep hearing? Well, brace yourself, as this may just be the best thing you’ve Googled in a while. 

If you’re keen to build a strong company culture and a high-performing team, then I’m afraid to say none of this is possible without psychological safety.

So, what is psychological safety?

In simple terms, psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished, or humiliated if you speak up with concerns, ideas or even mistakes. 

Where there is strong psychological safety people feel safe, challenge the status quo, and even share bold ideas. 

When there is zero psychological safety people will stay quiet about mistakes, fear doing things wrong and even fear being judged for just being themselves. 

High psychological safety is a critical piece of the puzzle for companies who want positive company cultures, and innovative businesses which are resilient to the ever-changing world we live in.

Where did the term psychological safety come from?

Harvard professor Dr. Amy Edmondson is the researcher behind the most comprehensive study of psychological safety. In her book, “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth”, Dr. Edmondson reveals that this “sense of confidence that your voice is valued”, is the difference between teams who perform well, and teams who are so afraid of criticism they put both themselves and the businesses they work within at risk.

Dr. Amy Edmondson coined the term “psychological safety” in 1999 and has since spoken worldwide about the correlation between business success, and the amount of safety a team feels in their day-to-day work life. 

The research concludes that psychological safety is conducive to interpersonal risk. 

In the diagram below from Dr. Edmonson’s research, you can see that when we fear being perceived as incompetent, negative or stupid, we are less likely to ask questions, admit a mistake or challenge the status quo. 

All of this points to danger, not only for us, but for those we work with, be it colleagues or customers, and for the organisation.  

As an example, Dr. Edmondson points out in her research that teams in a hospital where there was high psychological safety were more likely to raise concerns regarding patients’ drug prescriptions. Whereas in hospitals with low psychological safety, teams would never dare to question consultants or raise questions about medication. 

I know which hospital I would rather be in. 

Psychological safety also plays a part in diversity and inclusion.  In a time when we are championing more diversity and inclusion in the workplace, not having the psychological safety to call out inequality or racial injustice, stops diversity from moving forward. 

When all businesses need to adapt quickly to a volatile and disruptive economic state, people not speaking up about new ideas or solutions not only stalls growth but can even make businesses outdated and cumbersome, moving them more towards being obsolete than agile. 

Doing the work of psychological safety

Despite the term psychological safety being around for more than a decade now, research by McKinsey during the pandemic found that only a handful of companies were demonstrating the positive behaviours that can create a culture of psychological safety. 

Not the best news when we’ve needed psychological safety in the workplace more than ever before. 

Regardless of your sector or organisation, psychological safety is a necessity for a high-performing team and high-functioning business. 

Unfortunately, many of the ways we’re still running companies, with bureaucracy, outdated policies, power plays, and command and control tactics, does nothing to build psychological safety. In fact, much of the default way we run companies is detrimental to psychological safety. 

But this is not an overnight fix. We can’t simply wave a magic wand and make everyone feel safe at work. 

An evolution both on a personal level and a company level has to take place. 

What does a culture look like where there is no psychological safety?

Perhaps you’re wondering what these combat signals I mentioned might look like in real life. How does psychological safety manifest in the workplace, and what does it feel like? 

Here’s a list of what can be happening in your company culture when there is no psychological safety. 

Feeling like you can’t speak up about an issue. 

You’ve seen something that doesn’t look or feel right. You may not even have solid data to backup your sense, but you know something is off. However, you feel like you can’t speak up. 

You may feel it’s not your place to speak up, or you may feel that if you speak up you will be shot down. 

You’ve been shot down before, so you don’t speakup.

Maybe you once had the confidence to speak up, but now you’ve had a mean comment, or been shot down so many times before you no longer feel like you can speak up. 

You don’t want to come across as ‘challenging / antagonistic etc’ 

You’ve noticed that people who do speak up are labelled, and you fear that if you speak up you will also gain a label and may even be punished in some way for speaking up. A classic example of this is being bypassed for promotion or bonuses.

As Dr. Amy Edmondson says, “every time we withhold our ideas, our questions, or mistakes, we’re robbing ourselves and our colleagues of small moments of learning. We don’t innovate, we don’t come up with new ideas.” 

When we’re living in a culture with zero psychological safety, we are so busy managing how we look and fearing how we may be perceived, that we no longer contribute to making things better. 

Reading these examples, you may even be able to recall a situation where you wished you had spoken up and voiced your concerns. That “if only” moment can haunt us.

What does a culture look like where there is high psychological safety?

You feel like your voice is valued 

You know that when you speak people will listen. You know that whatever you share will be respected and taken seriously. 

At meetings and other group situations, there is opportunity and a safe space for people to contribute. It’s not the loudest voice or the one with the most powerful title. In these teams, there is space for everyone to contribute and the space to challenge. 

You have the confidence to share ideas 

You’ve had a lightbulb moment that you feel could make an impact and you’re confident that when you share this with others, they will respect you and not laugh or criticise your idea. 

When an idea is shared, teams embrace it with enthusiasm and gratitude. There is no criticism or off-hand remarks. The ideas are welcomed, considered, and maybe even expanded upon. 

You openly share mistakes 

You know that if you’ve done something wrong, yes it might be awkward and painful, but you feel safe to share it with your team because you know they will rally around you to support you and learn from this together. 

Mistakes are not only voiced but celebrated together as a learning experience. Everyone hears about it and gets the chance to be part of the solution. 

You give feedback to others 

You feel safe giving feedback to any member of the team, including leaders. You know that feedback is part of your culture and that delivered with the right intention only helps to nurture all those in the team.

Your leaders are vulnerable and authentic

Leaders are not the loudest and most egotistical in the room, they are the ones sharing their mistakes and vulnerabilities. Admitting when they’ve got something wrong and being humble enough to do the work they need to in order to rectify the situation.

Misconceptions of psychological safety

As ever, there are misconceptions about psychological safety. I’m hoping that from the examples shared above you have some context of what this feels and looks like in workplace culture, but let’s clear up some of the common myths just in case you fall prey to these in your own endeavours.

It’s not about a ‘nice’ culture. 

We still have a tendency to think keeping things pleasant equals making things safe, and it doesn’t. Challenges are a natural part of teamwork so they shouldn’t be ignored or ‘resolved’. Psychological safe space is not you holding back on something that may be challenging for others, that doesn’t help move things forward, or allow for growth. 

Brene Brown says something great about ‘nice’ cultures on her podcast Dare to Lead that resonates with this. “Nice culture means people are nice to your face but bitch about you at the watercooler.” 

No conflict

A psychological safe culture is not a place where there is no conflict. It’s not freedom from conflict, but a different mindset towards it. Rather than seeing conflict as something that has to be managed, it’s an opportunity to understand more deeply with one another. In any culture, it is vital for us to have different points of view. The difference is, in a safe space we seek to understand each other’s views, rather than seek to be right. 

It doesn’t mean EVERY idea is a great one 

Yes, ideas will be shared in a psychologically safe culture, but that doesn’t mean every idea is applauded and welcomed, or that every idea is relevant to the project at hand. For many teams I’ve worked with, there is a process and dedicated space for new ideas which enables people to understand why their idea was taken up, and how they may improve it next time around. 

Ideas aren’t just dismissed, but at the very least consciously considered. 

Not oversharing 

When wetalk about vulnerability unfortunately too often it gets interpreted as oversharing. 

Vulnerability is not oversharing. 

You can be vulnerable and still have your personal privacy. 

To bring social researcher Brene Brown back into the picture, “Using vulnerability is not the same thing as being vulnerable; it’s the opposite—it’s armour.”

Brene points out that vulnerability is about intention. Why are you sharing it? And what do you hope you will gain?

Too often we share too much information in order to gain sympathy from others or to try and build a connection and create trust.  

How do you create psychological safety as a leader?

By now you know that psychological safety is a must in your company culture. However, where do you begin? 

We can’t just flick the safety switch. In fact, the next part of beginning this journey starts with you. 

Whether you’re a leader or a team member; yes even someone with no formal authority, you can be the catalyst to building a psychologically safe culture. 

By role modelling and reinforcing the behaviours you have learned here, you can begin to turn your culture around. 

Numerous research studies have found that a positive team climate, one where team members care about one another’s wellbeing and have an input into how the team carries out its work – is one of the most important drivers of psychological safety. 

Leaders with an authoritative style, who command and control, or should we say ‘micro-manage’, are detrimental to psychological safety. Whereas coaching-supportive leaders promote psychological safety. 

Here are a handful of ways to get started; 

Create a learning environment

Framing work as a continuous learning experience, rather than one where perfection is required takes the heat off teams who are striving for perfection rather than progress. When we have a learning environment, we are more likely to come at problems with a curious mindset rather than one with fear, worry or frustration.

Be clear and transparent

You may be thinking – “people know I want their input!” 

But my question back to you is, do they? 

Always make it clear and transparent to your team that you want them to share things with you. 

Even share the reason why people’s voice is needed. Don’t just assume people know you want their input, be proactive about it. For example, saying something like “I may miss something, so I need to hear from you.” 

Acknowledge your own mistakes.

I can’t hammer home this one enough. Your vulnerability and how you approach mistakes leads the way for others. This is your chance to show the team how you’re going to approach mistakes and set the expectation.

Model curiosity

Learn how to ask good questions and ask lots of them. 

The more you ask questions the more you build curiosity in yourself and others. 

This curious mindset is what you need to begin to develop psychological safety.

Keep in mind - The High-Performance Zone

At the core of Dr. Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety is the high-performance zone, a model which illustrates the difference in team performance depending on psychological safety and accountability. 

This model demonstrates why you can’t focus on psychological safety alone but have to understand the intrinsic motivation of your team. This is worded as accountability under Dr. Edmondson’s work, but you may also call this drive or motivation. 

Apathy Zone 

In the apathy zone, teams do not have any motivation to perform, and there is no psychological safety. They may feel unhappy, reluctant to work, and not achieve anything meaningful.

Typical organisations which sit in this quadrant may be top-heavy in bureaucracy, and teams will not collaborate, but compete instead. As a company, you may see this as a high turnover of staff. 

Comfort Zone 

In the comfort zone, you will see teams with high psychological safety but no real drive or motivation to succeed. 

As a team, they may not be reaching their full potential, but consider themselves high performers. In organisations like this, leaders tend to be acting as ‘caring parents’, too often shielding teams from real challenges or critical feedback. The team may be long-lasting, and achieve some of their goals, but can stagnate and have a low drive to change how they do things. 

In this zone, teams will enjoy working together but never feel particularly challenged. 

This is most commonly those ‘nice cultures’ I spoke about earlier.

Anxiety Zone 

In the anxiety zone, we have real trouble, as teams have both low psychological safety but are highly driven. 

Teams within this quadrant will experience high levels of anxiety, as in these cultures people are pitted against each other to perform. 

The organisations within this zone will see a high turnover of staff, high burnout rates, high stress levels, and even negative conflict. 

High-Performance Zone or Learning Zone 

The high-performance zone, or learning zone, is the sweet spot all companies crave. 

In this quadrant, teams feel a high sense of psychological safety and demonstrate a strong desire to perform and deliver results. 

The reason this is also called the “learning zone” is because teams feel empowered to experiment, collaborate and learn from mistakes. 

The team in the high-performance zone will generally have a low turnover rate of team members, and a high drive for personal development. 

The culture quadrant of psychological safety should help give you an indication of where your team or company currently sits. 

Why focus on psychological safety?

When we build company cultures with psychological safety, we innovate quickly, unlock the benefits of diversity, and adapt well to change. 

As more companies are wishing to turn to new ways of working, with flatter structures and hybrid teams, psychological safety becomes an essential component of this shift. 

Regardless of whether you are a traditional hierarchical company or one that wants to embrace progressive ways of working; you can’t move forward without psychological safety. 

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    About The Author

    Lizzie Benton is a people and culture specialist who supports organisations in developing a unique company culture and building engaged teams. Lizzie has been recognised as a millennial changing the world of work, and has been featured in the Metro, HuffingtonPost and has spoken across the UK on employee engagement. When not consulting or running a workshop, Lizzie can be found in rural Lincolnshire enjoying afternoon tea and fresh air.