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Psychological Safety Explained

Psychological Safety Explained 

The term ‘psychological safety’ was coined in the last century by Harvard Business School professor of leadership and management, Amy Edmondson. She described this fundamental aspect of successful teamwork as having the confidence that a person will not be punished or humiliated when raising ideas, concerns, questions, or errors.

A lack of psychological safety has myriad negative effects that impact individuals’ wellbeing and, ultimately, productivity. In contrast, when someone is psychologically safe, they lack interpersonal fear and can speak freely, to share ideas, and also to advocate for others who may be less able to do so. According to one McKinsey study, nearly nine out of 10 (89%) employee respondents said they believe that psychological safety in the workplace is essential.  

When people are free to express a wealth of diverse ideas, views and experiences, individuals, overcome self-doubt, and perform to the best ability, regardless of their demographic background.

Maslow & psychological safety

A nurturing culture is not only one that is supportive of good health and contentment, but also in riches discussions and decision-making processes within the organisation in question.

Psychological safety has a place in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – close to the top of the triangle, due to the way it dovetails with the process of self-actualisation, whereby people achieve their full potential.

Self-actualised people accept themselves and others, and are unafraid to be human and share their foibles. They accept their own shortcomings and those of other people – they are not critical of others, either, as they have a healthy respect for themselves and the people they encounter. Crucially, in the sphere of DE&I, self-actualised people are able to correctly identify the truth of a situation, rather than rely on a swayed perception.

Psychological safety and teamwork

So, how does psychological safety affect teamwork? Google’s Project Aristotle was undertaken to discover what makes for successful collaboration. Over two years, Google examined 250 attributes of 180 teams within the organisation, delving into why some teams fared far better than others despite having a similar make-up – on paper, at least.

Julia Rosovsky, who headed up Aristotle, identified dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact, as the essential ingredients of a successful team. When Rosovsky and her colleagues encountered Prof Edmondson’s work they realised that psychological safety was a critical element of team dynamics. The Aristotle team drilled down into what was working for those teams whose performance was a cut above the rest and found that psychological safety was the most significant driver of success, in contrast to previously held beliefs around culture and management styles. No matter how high-flying or qualified an employee, if they are not psychologically safe, they will not be as effective as those who feel valued and respected.

Culture of fear

FAIRER Consulting conducted an online survey via LinkedIn, asking participants how comfortable they felt expressing their opinions at work. Only 10% said they felt very comfortable with the latter, with a startling 24% saying they felt very uncomfortable. The reasons for this discomfort were fear of judgment, lack of trust, having had a negative experience previously, fear of their career being affected and fear of a lack of anonymity.

These statistics are echoed by a study released in Mental Health Week 2023 by the Gleeson Recruitment Group. The vast majority (93%) of UK employees have left a job because of a toxic workplace, with 82% quitting due to having a toxic boss. And, Rethinkly’s findings last year revealed that 28% said people’s inability to communicate within the workplace has the largest impact on productivity. A Forbes study found that around one-third (32%) of people feel lonely at work and approximately two-thirds (61%) felt elevated stress.

Perhaps it is therefore unsurprising, as McKinsey found in 2021, that only 26% of leaders create psychological safety for their teams. These research findings show there is a colossal problem in many workplaces – and it’s a problem that may not be apparent because of the culture of fear that stops people from speaking up about toxicity. The psychologically unsafe employee, as shown by the studies cited, will often just leave their job, with the unhealthy organisation none the wiser as to the true reasons for their departure.

The danger of diversity in the absence of psychological safety

When looking through the perspective of DE&I, it’s crucial to understand that a diverse workforce in and of itself is not a panacea when it comes to building and nurturing a productive and effective team.

Henrik Bresman, associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD and Harvard’s Professor Amy Edmondson, found that while the executives they questioned believed that a diverse team would outperform those that were less diverse due to the array of viewpoints and experiences they bring to the table, this was not borne out in practice.

In fact, they discovered that the opposite was true, with diverse teams underperforming their less varied counterparts. This, they found was due to those who were surrounded by people who were familiar and who shared the same social norms and communication styles were better able to work together.

In contrast, when a diverse team communicates, there are clashing habits and opinions, which can cause misunderstandings and stress. The researchers tested the theory that the key to a successful diverse team lay in psychological safety. They focused on 62 drug development teams – where there were varying degrees of diversity – at six major pharmaceutical companies. Among the teams’ duties were developing safe, effective drugs to win regulatory approval, partnering with external stakeholders and working to deadlines. Diversity was measured using an index that included gender, age, expertise and tenure and psychological safety was measured via surveys. Team performance was rated by senior leaders who were not told of other teams’ findings.

Bresman and Edmondson’s findings, as discussed earlier, revealed that diverse teams performed slightly less effectively than others. In teams that had high levels of psychological safety, diversity was positively correlated with performance and, conversely, diversity was more negatively associated with performance where psychological safety was low in comparison with the average.

Separately, the researchers found in another study in the US that team diversity was inversely correlated with members’ satisfaction with their team and that people were, on average, less happy with their team, the more diverse it was. However, in the subgroup of teams with high levels of psychological safety, individuals were more satisfied the more their teams were diverse.

The evidence to date is clear: cultivating a psychologically safe environment for diverse teams is the key to achieving healthy performance, productivity and wellbeing at work.

The Understanding Psychological Safety in the Context of DE&I

So, what does psychological safety – and its absence – look like in practice in the workplace? Organisations wishing to retain their talent and their competitive edge would be wise to understand that overlooking psychological safety will cost them dear. Productivity is not the only casualty of poor psychological safety, as unhappy former and current employees make their feelings known on job boards and potentially drive away jobseekers and potential business partners.

Employee engagement

Research by Gallup revealed that employees who do not feel supported or valued by their organisation are more likely to be disengaged, leading to lower productivity and higher turnover rates. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report stressed one particular message to underline ‘what leaders can do today to potentially save the world’, and that is: change the way your people are managed. Low engagement costs the global economy $8.8 trillion – 9% of global GDP — enough to make the difference between success and a failure for humanity.

Far from being hyperbole, this stance highlights the fact that, as Gallup’s CEO Jon Clifton puts it, “Poor management leads to lost customers and lost profits, but it also leads to miserable lives. Gallup’s research into wellbeing at work finds that having a job you hate is worse than being unemployed — and those negative emotions end up at home, impacting relationships with family. If you’re not thriving at work, you’re unlikely to be thriving at life.”

A staggering 59% of employees are quiet quitting – are not engaged with their work – and if there is a lack of psychological safety to boot, this will clearly serve to worsen the situation. Gallup asked the quiet quitters what they would change about their workplace and 41% gave engagement or culture as the most popular area for businesses to improve upon. Being able to be open with approachable managers, managers recognising everyone’s contributions and being respected were cited as ways to make the workplace better.

Stress and burnout – and lost potential

Gallup’s research also makes the point that the world’s employees are more stressed now than they were 10 years ago. In fact, 44% of employees reported, in 2022, that they experienced ‘a lot of stress the previous day’, repeating the record high in 2021 and continuing a trend of elevated stress that began almost a decade earlier.

East Asia tied the US and Canada region for the highest levels of stress. While the Gallup study did not delve into the reasons behind these high stress levels, the researchers acknowledged that work itself can be a source of stress, and low engagement is related to higher stress. And, external factors relating to finance and family can also be sources of daily stress. While senior leaders are unable to alter these external sources of stress, they can make an impact on their employees’ lives by keeping them engaged.

In her book, The Fearless Organisation: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, Prof Edmondson makes the point that while companies focus on attracting talent, there is no value in drawing in the best people if they cannot speak their minds. She warns that cultures where people simply fit in and go along with the status quo are disastrous for the knowledge economy.

Diminished creativity and innovation

Edmondson believes that there needs to be a constant flow of new ideas, observations, challenges and critical thought to breed success. This does not mean that mistakes won’t be made or that there won’t be disagreements, but in a psychologically safe environment, people won’t fear being talking over, ridiculed, intimidated or silenced. Talking through a half-formed idea, warts and all, with the confidence that no one will belittle or blank you, will allow creativity to thrive.

Clearly, psychological safety goes far beyond wellbeing, pervading an organisation’s culture and what it can achieve. For creativity to thrive and cut through established practices and belief systems, it has to be unleashed.

However, it’s important to note that a psychologically safe environment is not one that shies away from all confrontation. On the contrary, for change to happen, difficult decisions must sometimes be taken, especially in light of ditching old practices for new.

Also, it is important to realise that, sometimes, leaders are an impediment to psychological safety. They have to be able to lead from the top-down and authentically demonstrate their openness to involving other people in problem-solving exercises for employees to feel psychologically safe.

Indeed, Gallup found that 70% of team engagement is attributable to the manager, but acknowledged that ‘many or most of your managers are quiet quitting too. They are waiting for the tools to build great teams’.

Consequently, if a leader is unable to do their job effectively, this will ricochet. As Prof Edmondson says, in the context of achieving psychological safety: “There does seem to be a fundamental reframing of the leader’s role. If you have your finger in every pie, you’re not doing your job.

“With leaders currently physically unable to be everywhere, this might be a good time to review working habits, attend fewer meetings, make fewer functional decisions, and allow yourself the time to focus on the bigger picture. You will be course correcting along the way anyway, so you will need to rely on each other to make forward progress.”

Grant Thornton’s research on psychological safety echoes this, championing ‘innovation powered by psychological safety’ as a vital tool for businesses survival. Ngozi Ogwo, CEO of Grant Thornton Nigeria says, “By celebrating differences of opinion, psychological safety sparks innovation,” she adds. “When team members are emotionally secure in the workplace, they tend to be more engaged and productive.”

Increased turnover and talent attrition

The war for talent has been rumbling on, without significant pause, since the phrase was coined in the late 1990s. Why? It appears that employees are, even in times of economic strife, unwilling to work in environments with poor levels of psychological safety.

Gallup believes that quiet quitting employees are an organisation’s low-hanging fruit for productivity gains, ripe for being inspired and motivated, if this is carried out well.

Similarly, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) describes empathetic leadership as a key to organisations unlocking their DE&I ambitions through ‘increasing employee happiness and motivation, boosting team innovation and creativity, and eliminating the disproportionate risk of attrition among diverse employee groups’.

BCG’s 2023 report, Inclusion Isn’t Just Nice. It’s Necessary, notes that improving employees’ experience of inclusion is one of the most actionable levers companies can use to attract and retain talent, adding that inclusion can slash attrition risk in half – but only when it is properly executed.

The report states that employees who can be their authentic selves are ‘happier, more motivated to give their best, feel like their perspectives matter—and are nearly 2.4 times less likely to quit’. The study of more than 27,000 employees showed plainly that not having a psychologically safe working environment will repel people, with almost one-third of Black, indigenous, and other people of colour; LGBTQ employees; and people with disabilities choosing not to apply for or accept a role owing to a lack of inclusion in the work culture.

Negative impact on organisational reputation

And, as previously touched on, organisations that fail to prioritise psychological safety risk damage to their reputation, both internally and externally.

Employees who feel unsupported or marginalized are more likely to speak out publicly about their experiences, which can tarnish an organisation’s brand and make it less attractive to prospective employees – and customers.

How to promote psychological safety at work  

Creating a psychologically safe working environment can take time to establish and embed but there are steps that you can take to help your team members to feel engaged with a sense of belonging.

In 2020, Dr Timothy Clark developed a four-stage pathway that can be used to guide teams towards psychological safety.

In his book, The Four Stages of Psychological Safety, Dr Clark’s conceptual model recognises that while this model – like all models – are useful, it may not be correct. Dr Clark underlines the fact that psychological safety is not a binary situation that is either ‘on’ or ‘off’. Rather, psychological safety is a dynamic aspect of a team’s wellbeing and will change at different times and in different situations.

The four stages of psychological safety

  • Inclusion safety: this is grounded in the fact that humans all want to belong and to be accepted into a team. This vital first stage is about being comfortable being present, with no threat of discrimination, but being part of a welcoming, comfortable environment. This is essential if people are to be heard and needs to be in place from the hiring stage onwards.
  • Learner safety: the second stage of Dr Clark’s pathway is founded on people being able to ask questions and to feel free to give and receive feedback to other team members, to make mistakes and to try new ways of doing things.
  • Contributor safety: this is where team members feel able to make suggestions, highlight threats or risks to the team and to give honest opinions about issues. Post-mortems and debriefs can be useful at this stage. 
  • Challenger safety: this powerful step to psychological safety takes courage on the part of senior leaders, as it requires them to put their defences aside and be open. In practice this step involves being able to challenge existing ways of working, behaviours, and others’ ideas, no matter their seniority. This enables new ideas to bubble to the surface and may also protect the organisation from disaster. Dr Edmondson cites the Columbia Shuttle disaster that killed seven astronauts. An engineer had seen a piece of foam hitting the shuttle during launch, but felt unable to raise it with a senior manager, who he said, while gesturing over his head, was ‘way up here’.

While the horrific circumstances of what happened with Challenger may seem highly unusual and even irrelevant to everyday business practice, a lack of psychological safety has also been linked with Enron and the global financial crisis. These, therefore, should be considered salutary tales that any wise leader will take note of when studying team dynamics.

Indeed, McKinsey’s stance is that leaders who are well-placed to build psychological safety by building the right climate, mindsets and behaviours in their teams. The consultancy’s survey states: ‘In our experience, those who do this best act as catalysts, empowering and enabling other leaders on the team—even those with no formal authority—to help cultivate psychological safety by role modelling and reinforcing the behaviours they expect from the rest of the team.”

McKinsey also discovered that team leaders are more likely to exhibit supportive, consultative, and challenging leadership if senior leaders demonstrate inclusiveness, for example, by seeking out opinions that might differ from their own and by treating others with respect. The researchers recommend focusing on specific skills and behaviours, such as open-dialogue skills and the development of social relationships within teams, to improve the likelihood of positive leadership behaviour and, in turn, boost psychological safety.

As McKinsey states: ‘Some of the most commonly taught skills at respondents’ organisations, such as open-dialogue skills, which allow leaders to explore disagreements and talk through tension in a team, are among the ones most associated with positive leadership behaviours.’

In To Excel, Diverse Team Needs Psychological Safety, HBR notes that framing can give team members a common understanding of work and acknowledges the fact that perspectives will be different going into a meeting.

By framing a meeting as an opportunity to share information, as opposed to somewhere to simply make decisions and share updates, people will be more likely to speak up and raise questions. Opening a meeting by explicitly stating that the goal is to share information and ideas – acknowledging that people may have different views – puts things on a more positive, open footing. Show appreciation when people express their views and be sure to actively listen. Then move on to discussing how these views affect matters, putting decisions as the last step on the agenda.

8 steps to promote psychological safety at work 

Finally, FAIRER Consulting has rounded up key actions that you can take to foster a culture that enables people to feel psychological safe. These are practical steps that will bolster psychological safety within your organisation.

  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 before discussing business.  
  2. Listen: check that you understand what someone has said to you and ask questions to ensure you are interpreting them accurately and not making assumptions. Be curious and open.
  3. Challenge ideas, not people: when delivering feedback, ensure that criticism focuses on work and 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 understand that failure is positive. 
  5. Avoid micromanaging your team: micromanaging can give your team a signal that you don’t trust them fully, and trust is essential for psychological safety. Involve them in decision making to indicate you value their opinions – this builds trust and leads to higher employee satisfaction.  
  6. Encourage risk taking: undertake a workplace culture audit to determine people’s willingness to take risks. 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. FAIRER’s 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. 

Want to learn more about Psychological Safety? 

Book a call with one of our Consultants for an informal chat about creating psychological safety for your employees and how you can move towards a more inclusive culture.


Dan Robertson

Dan Robertson is MD of FAIRER Consulting and Global Head of ED&I Advisory Services at Hays International. Over the last 15 years Dan has spent his time supporting global business leaders to transform their ideas into meaningful action, with a focus on inclusion as a strategic management issue, bias mitigation and inclusive leadership.