What Is Psychological Safety And How You Should Practice It

Psychological safety is a shared workplace belief where one can feel free to express themselves without fear of humiliation or retaliation, and the best ways to practice it include embracing work as a learning experience, normalizing mistakes, and modeling curiosity.

By Kari Apted | Published

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Psychological safety has been a buzzword in the business world for a while, but what exactly is it, and why is it important? Psychological safety is a belief shared by the members of a team that it’s acceptable to express their thoughts and concerns, to take risks, to ask questions and admit mistakes, and do all these things without fear of negative consequences. Organizations that embrace these concepts enjoy greater success and happier employees than those who ignore this innate need.

Amy Edmonson is a Harvard Business School professor who coined the phrase “team psychological safety” and wrote The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, an in-depth look into the concept. According to Manage Magazine, Edmonson defines it as, “A shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” It is the assurance that team members won’t be laughed at, humiliated, or punished for sharing ideas or pointing out mistakes.

Edmonson says that a primary purpose for psychological safety is creating a work environment where team members at all levels of employment can learn from one another. When she began researching the concept, she was surprised to find that the most successful teams make just as many mistakes as others. The difference in success was the team’s ability to talk about mistakes and share experiences so that all team members could learn from them.

Psychological safety isn’t just for traditional business environments. In some cases, it can be lifesaving, such as when an operating room nurse speaks up to avoid a wrong-side surgery. Or on a larger scale, it’s been said the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster could have been avoided if plant operators had felt free to express their concerns to higher-ups instead of living in a fear-driven culture.

According to Edmonson, three core leadership behaviors support psychological safety in teams. First, embrace the concept that everything is an experiment and an opportunity to learn how to do things better next time. Output isn’t the exclusive outcome of work, rather work is a learning process.

The second leadership behavior is acknowledging that you make mistakes and sometimes don’t have the answer. When people in leadership own their errors, it frees others to follow their example. The third behavior is to model curiosity, ask questions, and create opportunities for your team to contribute their answers to the group’s problems.

Managers who fail to create an environment of psychological safety risk team underperformance. Their employees often suffer from stress and burnout, which results in high employee turnover rates. Companies can also miss out on new, better ways to do things if a culture of fear prevents team members from verbalizing their ideas.

Leaders who are interested in creating a greater culture of psychological safety can begin by using the psychological safety matrix, a fun activity that will uncover areas for potential improvement. It can be conducted in person or remotely via tools such as Google Jamboard. Once the results are in, remember that good leaders are unashamed to apologize for past mistakes before creating a positive new path for the team to move forward.