How to Promote Psychological Safety at Work

Psychological safety at work is key to unlock innovation ideas and create an environment where engaged employees thrive

Sabrina Hassanali
March 9, 2021

How to Promote Psychological Safety at Work

Sabrina Hassanali
April 27, 2021

You are a progressive CEO.

You want to bring a growth mindset to your business and build a high-performing team that works through novel problems.

Does your company culture reflect this approach?

Do your employees feel confident sharing and exploring new, possibly risky ideas?

Are they comfortable challenging the status quo?

Have you created a work environment that builds trust and encourages innovation?

A psychologically safe workplace culture magnifies the talents within teams.

When co-workers can collaborate, share opinions, voice doubts, and engage meaningfully without the fear of negative repercussions, organizations excel.

In the article below, we will discuss:

  • what is psychological safety at work,
  • why safe organizations and safe teams perform better,
  • how to measure psychological safety at work, and
  • how to promote emotional safety in the workplace.

Indeed, ensuring a positive team climate paves the way for high-performance teams to work through uncertainty with interdependence.

Team leaders, executives, and self-governing organizations can create psychological safety at work through thoughtful leadership and positive interactions at work. 

What is Psychological Safety at Work?

Amy Edmonson, Harvard Business School Professor and organizational behavior scientist, is a leading expert on psychological safety.

She is the author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth.

Edmonson defines psychological safety at work as the “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking[....]a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up.”

Within a safe environment, team members can work together in ways that allow them to share without fear of retribution for disagreements, concerns, and ideas. 

A psychologically safe team is a more high performing team

In a psychologically safe team, individuals are not afraid that their comments will be considered ignorant, intrusive, negative, or incompetent.

Teams operating in psychologically safe environments are willing to take risks outside of their typical roles in solving team problems.

For example, in the context of a psychologically safe healthcare team, a nurse can raise doubts about the dosage provided to a patient.

In a psychologically safe board meeting, a new executive will voice her concerns about the company’s long-term strategy.

As a whole, then, psychological safety operates by welcoming insights from the work-related experience of all team members. 

Without the underlying respect inherent in a safe team, it would be very difficult to share doubts about a superior’s course of action.

Healthy Success vs Short-Term Wins

Mind you, there are some teams that perform well without psychological or even physical safety – in sports for example – but that success is usually temporary and comes at a high cost.

To build a successful team that can perform in the long run, organizations must create a culture that empowers team members to share risky opinions because they don't fear negative consequences.

Why is Psychological Safety Important in an Organization? 

In addition to improving employee wellbeing, psychological safety within an organization promotes the sharing of diverse ideas, elevates creativity, and condones interpersonal risk taking that lead to learning and change. 

This dynamic rewards thoughtful solutions after a variety of strategies are considered.

Indeed, feeling safe allows team members to whole-heartedly participate in the life of the organization by sharing and exchanging opinions. When ideas are debated with emotional intelligence, team performance is overwhelmingly better.

In a widely reported internal study of team effectiveness at Google, researchers observed that psychological safety is the single most important characteristic of high-performing teams.

Google’s Project Aristotle showed that high-performing teams allowed individual members to learn and grow within the team.

Google’s research concluded that psychologically safe teams outperform teams with more seniority, tenure within the company, or even teams located within the same office.

Google found that within a psychologically safe team, members allowed for a robust discussion about projects and helped to anticipate pitfalls due to an openness to hear perspectives within the team.

For example, if the team leader suggested taking a course of action that was impossible, impractical, or ill-considered, it was possible to speak up within the team without fear of negative consequences. 

How to Measure Psychological Safety 

Since psychological safety is a belief held by team members about taking risks at work, a survey can be used to determine whether team members are comfortable in sharing within their teams.

Through collaboration with Amy Edmonson, Google’s Project Aristotle developed a method to gauge psychological safety on a team.

It asked team members to state how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the following statements:

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

The extent to which individuals agree or disagree with these statements can determine if there is psychological safety in the workplace.

These additional questions help team leaders gauge the extent there is already a psychologically safe environment at work.

Within an organization, do team members feel that they can share disagreement or discontent candidly? 

Are team members comfortable in asking for further explanations?

Are additional, more informal discussions required to arrive at clarity after meetings?

Once leaders assess the psychological safety within a workplace, they can begin to apply a specific strategy to improve interpersonal trust with a number of targeted practices. 

How to Promote Emotional Safety in the Workplace 

Simon Sinek suggests an empathy-focused approach for psychological safety centered on the role of leaders.

Psychological safety can be modeled by leadership that avoids name-calling, denigration, and anger-filled negative responses.

As Sinek notes, the willingness of leadership to hear individual concerns, coach team members, and support the people on a team can also contribute to creating a psychologically safe environment. 

If leaders are open to mistakes, teams can feel safe in sharing potential problems and reach out to leadership for support.

Thus, good leadership can take responsibility for modeling an openness grounded in the principles behind psychological safety.

Furthermore, leaders can model psychological safety when analyzing teamwork results by asking for input and opinions from the group. 

In determining workflow and processes, group leaders can share information about personal work styles and preferences and also encourage other team members to do the same.

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety at Work

In the Leader Factor, Timothy Clark defines four escalating levels of psychological safety at work:

  1. inclusion safety,
  2. learner safety,
  3. contributor safety, and
  4. challenger safety.

Inclusion safety is a good first step because every individual member feels that they are part of the group.

Learner safety encourages rapid learning and especially improves the employee experience during the onboarding phase because team members are not afraid to ask questions.

Contributor safety makes for more effective team work because it gives team members the confidence to participate in group projects.

Challenger safety is the ultimate goal because that's when everybody feels safe challenging the status quo and every team meeting has the potential to uncover new innovation ideas and growth opportunities.

Strategies to Promote Inclusion Safety at Work 

The first stage of a psychologically safe work team is inclusion safety.

Individual team members need to sense that they are included within the team. When individuals feel that they can be fully their own person at work, there is inclusion safety at work.

Leadership can promote inclusion safety by avoiding disparaging comments about team members and reducing cliquishness.

Inclusion safety can be promoted by introducing new members with opportunities to belong and connect within the work community. 

Strategies to Promote Learner Safety at Work 

The degree to which is it permissible to make mistakes is a test of learner safety at work.

Strategies to promote learn safety at work include reframing the work at hand as a learning experience.

In Holaspirit, one way we promote this is through the creation and processing of items to discuss with co-workers.

Adding an item to discuss in Holaspirit

These items can vary greatly in nature. For example, it could be:

  • asking for feedback on a specific topic,
  • offering a solution to a problem that has already been identified,
  • bringing a new problem or discomfort to the attention of others so you can work it out together. 

Depending on the nature of the item, you could add it to a specific meeting or ask the team to approve the proposed change asynchronously. 

Including a dedicated step to discuss improvement opportunities in meetings is a great way to improve employee engagement because people know that there's a dedicated time for them to ask for support, voice their concerns, or propose solutions.

Adding custom steps in meeting templates

This mindset requires individuals on a team to keep growing and learning. With this perspective, there is room for trial and error on a work product. This improves employee engagement in the long run.

As a team, this strategy requires the capacity to take risks and acknowledges that failure itself is a possibility. Through this, team members can broaden their capacities and learn at work.

Strategies to Promote Contributor Safety at Work

Encouraging a spirit of contribution and collaboration encourages contributor safety at work.

For example, welcoming feedback and a variety of perspectives allows individuals to chime in with their willingness to help across silos.

This, again, can be done in different ways. 

First, structuring your company with circles and roles, including transversal roles that work in different circles, can help you get rid of a lot of unhelpful managerial layers and territorial silos. 

In addition, actively seeking feedback from everyone on a regular basis shows that the organization values feedback. You can create that culture right from the start by asking for feedback from new employees during their onboarding process.

Within an organization, allowing employees to contribute in this productive way promotes psychological safety.

As individual team members welcome support from other teams, there is an increased sense of contributor safety at work. 

Strategies to Promote Challenger Safety at Work 

To promote challenger safety, there must be a sense of mutual respect and purpose within a team.

If all team members are seen as part of a solution, then difficult and sensitive topics can be discussed openly.

This highest level of psychological safety allows collaborators within an organization to question fundamental goals and approaches without being seen as undermining loyalty to the organization.

Individual teams can create this dynamic by having trust in their members because they are not questioning the motives of their team members. 

That can only happen if everyone in the organization is truly given a voice and heard at the same time.

Indeed, it's all well and good encouraging discussions. If the same small group of people end up making all the decisions, people will very quickly stop learning, contributing and challenging.

Additional Strategies Specific to Remote Work 

As the vast majority of work has moved online in the past year, it can be a new struggle to ensure psychological safety through the online workplace.

Indeed, detecting social cues or non-verbal discomfort is much harder online.

However, the thoughtful use of online tools can create the dynamic to enhance safety and collaboration within a remote team. 

In a 2020 Harvard Business Review article, Amy Edmonson and Gene Daley gave tips on how to foster psychological safety in virtual meetings that may even serve us well to be more mindful of others in the physical world as well:

  • using the hand raise function to signal you'd like to speak,
  • asking yes/no questions to go through non-complex items efficiently,
  • running anonymous polls to collect everyone's feedback on sensitive topics,
  • using the chat function to brainstorm ideas during the discovery phase of a project, and
  • grouping a small number of people in breakout rooms for more in-depth discussions that require back and forth.

In addition, if you notice that some people are not contributing online, don't hesitate to reach out directly to quiet team members for a follow-up chat. 

Ultimately, building a psychologically safe workplace is a constant work-in progress that requires a lot of empathy and conscious effort to get rid of our unconscious biases.

Tools to Support Psychological Safety Initiatives

As we've seen above, clarity, trust, and a commitment to continuous improvement are key markers of a psychologically safe workplace.

Holaspirit can help you add clarity to your organization, build trust and actively seek continuous improvement:

When the organization as a whole openly shares expectations and is ok showing that progress is not linear, individuals are more likely to ask for help and offer solutions to help others figure out a way to make the whole successful.

Instead of spending hours in meetings where only a few people feel comfortable voicing their opinion, you'll create a culture of trust and high-performance where people are excited to work on projects.

Not sure how that would work?

The best way to learn is to open a 30-day free trial (no credit card required) and get started.

If you'd like to talk about how it could work for your organization specifically, you can let us know when you create the trial and one of our product specialist will be in touch with you to arrange a personalized product walkthrough.

psychological safety
company culture
performance
WRITTEN BY

Sabrina Hassanali

Adjunct Professor Of Law

Temple University

Sabrina Hassanali writes about and coaches business professionals on creating an empathetic, human-centered work life.