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Peter MacDonald HallFeb 5, 2024 10:40:36 AM8 min read

How to cultivate psychological safety at work

How to cultivate psychological safety at work

In today’s modern workforce, promoting psychological safety has become a fundamental part of organisational success. As organisations make strides towards innovation and increased productivity, creating a workplace culture where individuals feel safe to express ideas, concerns and take educated risks is crucial.  

The absence of psychological safety can return damaging consequences for both individuals and organisations. When employees do not feel psychologically safe at work, open communication and the confidence to think and act progressively are hindered, contributing to an overall sense of stress and anxiety within the workplace. Thus, it is imperative that leaders seek to foster a culture of trust, transparency and respect, allowing employees to feel comfortable and garner a sense of belonging.  

This guide aims to outline proactive measures towards psychological safety, such as regular check-ins and inclusive decision-making processes, ensuring all team members feel empowered to contribute their unique perspectives without fear of judgement or bias. 

What is psychological safety? 

Psychological safety was first coined in 1965 by researchers Edgar H. Schein and Warren G. Bennis. But it wasn't until researcher, Amy Edmondson's, pioneering work in the late 1990s that this concept became a hot topic for organisations and teams. 

Edmondson, defines psychological safety as, "a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking." 

In other words, psychological safety at work is knowing that you can: 

  • Speak up 
  • Offer new ideas 
  • Be yourself without fear of negative consequences like being ignored, ridiculed or punished. 

The need to create psychological safety in the workplace has never been more urgent. Google’s Project Aristotle project famously found that psychological safety is the top driver of team success for all employees. Research shows that it is effective at improving the workplace and reducing attrition for women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ employees, people with disabilities, and people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. 

More importantly, in this kind of environment, it feels safe to share feedback with others, including negative upward feedback to leaders about where improvements or changes are needed. 


In 2020, social scientist, Dr Timothy Clark, established a 4-stage pathway towards psychological safety.

It begins with inclusion and progresses towards establishing learning, increased contributions, and eventually, challenger safety”, where individuals feel empowered to put forward suggestions and have them fairly heard without reprisal.  

  • Inclusion – Establishing an inclusive culture from the hiring process through inductions, personal story sharing, and ongoing avenues for connection. 
  • Learner – Fostering a safe environment where employees freely exchange ideas, ask questions and receive feedback whilst embracing the learning process. 
  • Contributor – This is where employees feel secure contributing to organisational goals, such as shaping standards and developing training programs. 
  • Challenger Acknowledging psychological safety as an ongoing process for workplace improvement, ensuring a continuous sense of safety, and identifying opportunities for enhancement without risking personal standing or reputation.

The ultimate aim is to harness and focus everyone’s efforts so that they feel safe and able to put forward ideas and have them heard without fear. This is where the magic happens – and where a team becomes stronger than the sum of its parts.

Psychological safety at work: what does the data say?  

We conducted an online survey via LinkedIn, which asked its participants how comfortable they felt expressing their personal views at work. The results are set out below: 

How comfortable do you feel expressing your personal views at work? 

Very comfortable 10%
Somewhat comfortable 34%
Somewhat uncomfortable 31%
Very uncomfortable 24%

The results showed that people overall felt uncomfortable to express themselves for a number of reasons. These reasons include:  

  • Fear of judgement 
  • Lack of trust 
  • Negative previous experience 
  • Fear of career being affected 
  • Fear or lack of anonymity or confidentiality 

These perceptions are further supported by research, which highlights that: 

Benefits and impact of cultivating psychological safety at work 

There are numerous benefits to creating a team culture where everyone feels they belong are able to be their authentic selves. However, businesses very often focus on attracting diverse talent but pay little attention to ensuring their workplace culture is fit for purpose in retaining that talent. 

HAYS’ salary guide (US) highlights that people considering leaving their jobs is at the highest for many years, therefore it is essential that businesses and organisations focus on building psychological safety to create and sustain a positive team culture. 

The key benefits in creating an inclusive culture where people feel psychological safe to share their opinions are: 

  • Information sharing among employees is enhanced, which can lead to better decision-making, as employees bring diverse perspectives and ideas. 
  • Increases in job satisfaction, which contributes to happiness at work. When employees feel safe to take risks and make mistakes, they are not afraid of the consequences of failure but rather see it as an opportunity for growth and learning.
  • Encourages and supports learning behaviours. A psychologically safe workplace encourages learning behaviours, which can lead to an improved workplace culture, where employees seek new ways to improve their skills and knowledge, leading to more successful teams.
  • Boosts performance and profitability. When employees feel safe to speak up, they share their ideas and opinions. As a result they are more likely to be engaged and committed to their work. When this happens, people grow and push boundaries.
  • Reduced employee turnover. Employees are more likely to stay with the business over the long- term if they feel that their contributions are recognised. 

Identifying the barriers to psychological safety 

Being aware of the benefits of creating a psychologically safe culture is only part of the answer. We need to know what the barriers are so we can mitigate the potential impact they may have in creating an effective team culture.  

  • Bullying, intimidation, and ruling by fear - This behaviour can create fear in a team. Fear results in team members playing a constant second-guessing game of anticipating the mood of their manager, which results in team members being distracted and anxious.  
  • Breaking a promise - Psychological safety is strongly related to trust. Trust in your team and trust in your leader is fundamental to being a part of a psychologically safe team. This relates to “dependability”; the second most important factor in high-performing teams by Google’s Project Aristotle. 
  • Self-aggrandising - This behaviour can be seen by leaders who enjoy overt demonstrations of their power and authority. This might correlate to having double standards – one rule for them, and one for everyone else. Examples of this type of behaviour include: not replying to emails, or rescheduling meetings without notice. Much of this behaviour results in implicitly stating that they possess a higher status than their team members. 
  • People don’t speak up in meetings - Quiet team meetings do happen occasionally, and this is okay, but when they become the norm, especially when there is leadership presence, then it’s a sign that psychological safety is missing from the team. 
  • Team productivity is declining - Effective teams deliver value quickly and autonomously. When there is no psychological safety, employees are not motivated to do their best work. As a result, we are likely to see a decline in team productivity. 
  • Other barriers include: Leaders taking credit for team success, and micro-managing and over-checking. This implies to team members that they are not trusted, and trust is fundamental to psychological safety. 

8 best practices for promoting psychological safety at work  

So, what are the key actions that we can take to foster a culture that is not only respectful of diversity, equity and inclusion, but allows people to feel psychological safe?  

Below are keynote points for you to note and take action to embed into your businesses and organisations.  

  1. Formalise time for sharing and learning. At the start of meetings, carve out a few minutes to let people engage with one another as humans first.  
  2. Listen up - Check that you understand what someone has said to you and ask questions to ensure you are interpreting them accurately and not making any assumptions. Be curious and open to where the conversation goes. 
  3. Challenge ideas, not people. When delivering feedback, ensure that any criticism focuses on the quality of the work, not the person who did the work. 
  4. Celebrate failure. Psychologically safe team members are not scared of sharing their failures because they know their mistakes and failures won't be used against them. Try to encourage the team to take a learning from the experience and see that learning as a positive. 
  5. Avoid micromanaging your team. This can give them the signal that you don’t trust them fully, and trust is essential for psychological safety. Involve them in decision making to indicate you value others’ opinions, which builds trust and leads to higher employee satisfaction.  
  6. Encourage risk taking. Have you undertaken a workplace culture audit? Employees in psychologically safe spaces are more willing to take calculated risks, leading to a culture that embraces experimentation and continuous improvement and innovation.  
  7. Be open and authentic. Inclusive leaders are able to share their own mistakes and lessons learned with the team. Our inclusive leadership training aims to equip leaders with the tools and knowledge to create a successful and inclusive workplace environment. 
  8. Promote employee wellbeing. Feeling safe at work contributes to lower stress levels, reduced risk of burnout and better mental health outcomes as employees can safely express how they feel without fear of negative consequences. Leaders who are able to manage a diverse and inclusive workplace reap the benefits of leading a team that is engaged and contributes to organisational ambitions.  

If you have any questions or would like to have a discussion about supporting your ambitions to create a team culture that is inclusive and psychologically safe, please contact us at  

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 Louisa Benedicto

Louisa Benedicto is Senior Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I), Corporate Social Responsibility, and Sustainability at Hays – covering the Americas region including Canada, the U.S. and Latin American countries.


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 Peter MacDonald Hall

Peter is a highly regarded subject matter expert in the fields of workplace diversity and inclusion, unconscious bias, and inclusive leadership. Having collaborated extensively with a wide array of organisations, his expertise extends to crafting comprehensive global and regional ED&I strategies for clients.