Psychological Safety: What is it & why do we need it?
Updated: Apr 13
Psychological safety is a relatively new concept which has increasingly been recognised as central to building resilient teams and organisations. In this article we discuss what is psychological safety and why we need it.
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety is about feeling able to be yourself in a social or work group without fear of negative consequences (Kahn, 1990).
According to Timothy R Clark, author of The Four Stages of Psychological safety, it removes fear from human interaction, replacing it with respect and permission. Within the workplace this is associated with feeling accepted and respected by our colleagues or team. It allows us to feel safe to take interpersonal risks, such as opening up about mistakes, or challenging someone else’s perspective. Linked to feelings of inclusion and belonging, it also contributes to learning as we feel safe to ask questions and contribute.
Trust between individuals is an important feature of psychological safety. However, psychological safety is broader than trust and is not restricted to how one individual views another. Rather, it emerges from how group members feel they are viewed by other group members.
Why is psychological safety important?
Enhanced team effectiveness
Psychological safety is central to workplace effectiveness (Edmondson and Lei, 2014). This is because it helps team members to maintain a sense of calm in the work context. It contributes to feelings of connection and belonging that allow for greater levels of team collaboration and co-operation.
Heightened innovation and creativity
Feeling safe and connected with those around us boosts personal and team resilience. It soothes our threat response and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to heightened innovation and creativity. Psychological safety facilitates our ability to generate new ideas and our motivation to share those ideas.
Sharing of ideas and views
In a more toxic interpersonal environment, where we do not feel psychologically safe, our fear of judgement can often hold us back from sharing our ideas or views. Psychological safety on the other hand, frees group members from concern about potential negative consequences of expressing a new or different idea. Consequently, they are more likely to speak up and feel motivated to improve the work of their team or organisation.
Psychological safety also enhances team learning, which is essential for organisational success and resilience. This involves not only feeling safe to speak up and share ideas but also to open up about mistakes and failures. Where team members feel psychologically safe, they are able to be reflexive, to learn and grow through setbacks. And this builds team and organisational resilience.
How to create psychological safety
Strong relationships and cohesion between team members are central to successfully establishing psychological safety within a group or team. This requires a clear team structure and role clarity across the team. Team members using prosocial behaviours, such as inclusion and appreciation, strengthens relationships by valuing diversity and recognising individual skills and contributions to the work of the team.
Leaders play a key role in creating psychological safety within a team. To achieve this, they need to build trust between individuals and encourage and model prosocial behaviours, such as acceptance, interest and kindness.
Leaders who value psychological safety recognise the importance of encouraging difficult conversations within their team. These conversations contribute to greater reflexivity and ease of talk about failures and setbacks that contribute to team learning and resilience.
Leaders who use management styles that encourage group responsibility and shared decision-making, such as Participatory management and Inclusive management tend to set the tone for improved psychological safety.
How psychologically safe is your team?
Having read this article, you may be wondering how psychologically safe your team is.
This measure based on work by Amy Edmondson focuses on four key dimensions of psychological safety.
attitude to risk and failure – the degree to which it is permissible to make mistakes
open conversation – the degree to which difficult topics can be openly discussed
willingness to help – the degree to which people are willing to help each other
inclusivity and diversity – the degree to which you can be yourself and are valued for this
Ask your team to rate their level of agreement with the statements below, using a 1-5 scale: 1=low and 5=high
On this team, I understand what is expected of me.
We value outcomes more than outputs or inputs, and nobody needs to “look busy”.
If I make a mistake on this team, it is never held against me.
When something goes wrong, we work as a team to find the systemic cause.
All members of this team feel able to bring up problems and tough issues.
Members of this team never reject others for being different and nobody is left out.
It is safe for me to take a risk on this team.
It is easy for me to ask other members of this team for help.
Nobody on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.
The higher the score the more psychologically safe a person feels. The top score is 50.
It will be useful to look closely at the patten of responses in order to understand the challenges to psychological safety within your team. The measure can also be administered before and after a team intervention to calculate its impact on levels of psychological safety.
Try checking out the statements with the lowest scores and those with the widest range of responses. Consider which of the four areas might need action or changes in behaviour to improve the psychological safety of your team.
If your team is scoring low on several items on this measure it may be time to consider some Resilient Leadership Training. This training supports leaders to enhance psychological safety in their teams. Get in touch for a free consultation to find out more.