Harvard researcher Amy Edmundson raised the profile of the concept of psychological safety through her 2018 book, The Fearless Organization. Businesses that care about innovation, employee engagement, outpacing the competition, and diversity, equity and inclusion need to care about psychological safety.
Edmundson defines psychological safety as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” It is a shared sense of trust and support for appropriate risk-taking and vulnerability within group relationships.
When teams, groups and organizations have a high level of psychological safety, they pursue innovative ideas, raise concerns early, are highly engaged, and have open and honest conversations about their work and challenges. It moves workplace relationships from transactional to invested, which is important for organizations that are doing meaningful work related to diversity, equity and inclusion. Learning behaviors like asking questions, sharing information and trying new things also happen more consistently in environments where people feel psychologically safe. Research from Google’s Project Aristotle found that psychological safety was the most important differentiator in high-performing teams.
Groups that have lower levels of psychological safety tend to be more dysfunctional. Interpersonal dynamics are challenging. Trust levels are low. There is a fear of reprisal and retribution for asking questions, taking risks and experiencing failures. New product and business ideas stall because the personal consequences of getting it wrong are too high. Employees are disengaged and fearful.
Understanding the level of psychological safety in an organization can start with a short survey. The survey from The Fearless Organization assesses teams on four key elements that contribute to psychological safety. Results from the survey are then used to facilitate a team discussion. Similar to how many organizations manage their employee engagement survey results, the team then creates an action plan to strengthen team dynamics. Ongoing monitoring of the action plan and additional surveys are used to measure progress and follow through.
With organizational culture at the center of many workplace conversations about remote, hybrid and in-office work; recruiting and retention; and the role of work in people’s lives, an organization that can demonstrate high levels of psychological safety through team dynamics, innovation, pursuit of learning and actions toward a more just workplace will attract and keep top talent and deliver strong business results.
Jill Hauwiller is on faculty at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.