what is psychological safety

What is Psychological Safety?

What is psychological safety?

What exactly is psychological safety, and why is it so important for creating high-performing teams?

In this article, we’ll explore:

  • what psychological safety is
  • where the term comes from
  • and how Google proceeded when they learned that this was the most important component for building high-performing teams

First, let’s start by defining what psychological safety really is and why it’s important.

What is psychological safety and why do we need it?

Psychological safety can be defined as the freedom to be yourself with others, fully and completely. With psychological safety in place, you are not afraid of being ridiculed when you say what you mean. Without this feeling of safety as part of the work culture, people tend not to share ideas that could become good opportunities. In addition to this, individuals may refrain from speaking up about something that they think could go wrong. In other words, a lack of psychological safety can be both expensive and dangerous.

With psychological safety in place, there will be less office politics. Politics in the workplace has a cost, both in terms of how employees feel, and in terms of the time employees spend on it. If you are completely confident that it is okay to be you, and that it is okay to share your thoughts, then you will be less concerned with what others think of you, and how you look yourself. There will be a greater chance that the dialogues are open and focused on subjects, instead of in quiet spaces and focused on the personal.

Here is an example of a lack of psychological safety

Imagine that you are sitting in a departmental meeting with your team at work. You have an idea you want to share with your team, and now it’s your turn to talk. While you are chatting, you see out of the corner of your eye that one of your colleagues is rolling his eyes. Another colleague has a mocking smile at the corner of his mouth. You see several of your colleagues exchanging glances. 

How would you feel if your idea was received in this situation? Would you feel like sharing more ideas at the next opportunity?

When it feels unsafe to share ideas or to make mistakes, employees will take fewer risks. In turn, this leads to less innovation and growth for the business.

Psychological safety is largely created by leaders and the frameworks they set. They enable employees to focus on common goals rather than protecting themselves. Politics is removed, and space is created for innovative interaction.

The background to the concept of psychological safety

Amy Edmunson has written a very popular book, The Fearless Organisation, where she goes into detail about her work in this field.

She studied which medical errors are committed by health personnel in hospitals. The first results of her research showed that the best teams made more mistakes than the not-so-good teams. This seemed strange and counterintuitive to Edmunson.

The best teams were high performers, with good internal collaboration and with satisfied employees. So why were more errors reported with these? The working hypothesis was that the good teams did not make more mistakes at all, but that they reported more of them. Several studies confirmed her hypothesis. The best teams had high psychological safety. This made it safe to report any mistakes that were made. Mistakes were documented. Consequently, the teams had the opportunity to learn from them and create better routines to ensure that it did not happen again. The teams that did not feel the same sense of safety were more likely not to report the mistakes that were made, for fear of what it would lead to. This also reduced the potential for improvement. In this way, dangerous mistakes were repeated several times.

In the book, Edmunson refers to a number of different examples that emphasise how important psychological safety is. One of these is from Pixar. The film company have managed to create an environment where both creativity and criticism flourish.

Pixar’s starting point for any new film is that they are basically bad. Then, through an iterative and creative process called “Braintrust”, ideas and drafts for the new film receive honest feedback from a small group.

Rules for Pixar’s Braintrust:
  • The feedback must be constructive (subject, not person)
  • The feedback is only a suggestion, not a message
  • The feedback must come from an empathetic place

The idea behind this feedback is that the group should help create a better product, without its own agenda. Observations and feedback build upon each other and new ideas are born. They create a system where the sum is greater than the individual parts it consists of. However, for this process to be successful, psychological safety must be in place.

We recommend reading the book for even more details about how they work with this at Pixar (and a number of other companies).

Which zone are you in?

Then there are some who question whether it might be too safe. Should we just enjoy ourselves at work? This fear is rooted in the fact that we will not be able to do the work we are supposed to do together, or that we will not dare to challenge each other.

Psychological safety is about openness, the free flow of ideas and the opportunity to have productive disagreement. We dare to say what we mean. We dare to stand for what we say. Even when the pressure is high and the world around us demands great results.

An important point from Edmundson is therefore that psychological safety alone is not sufficient to create high-performing teams, as shown in the diagram above. Leaders have two important tasks. One is to create a working environment with a high level of psychological safety. The second is to set high standards and inspire employees to reach them. Everyone needs professional goals to aspire to, and everyone needs feedback when these standards are not met. We need to challenge our comfort zone, in a safe way.

Clear goals, colleagues you can trust, personally meaningful work and the belief that the work you do has an effect are important factors in this. Psychological safety is nevertheless the most important, and supports the others.

Creating high performing teams

An eventually well-known example of the importance of psychological security comes from Google, as described in detail in this excellent article from the New York Times (NB: located behind a pay wall). We will summarise the most important findings.

Google set out to study how they could build the perfect team. What they wanted to achieve was to transform the productivity of the company.

In 2012, the company initiated a research project codenamed Project Aristotle. The goal was to study the teams at Google and find out what made some do so well, while others struggled to deliver what they were supposed to.

The Aristotle project looked at a total of 180 teams from all parts of the company. First of all, they looked at a number of academic studies of how teams worked.

These were some of the questions the researchers asked themselves:
  • Were the best teams made up of people with similar interests?
  • How often did the team members meet outside of work?
  • Did they have similar interests, or similar educational backgrounds?
  • How was the gender balance in the teams?

However, despite all the insights they gained, it was nearly impossible to find any patterns or evidence that the composition of the teams actually mattered.

Some of the most effective teams were friends who also hung out in their spare time. Others never met each other socially. Some were strongly hierarchical, while others had a flat structure.

Abeer Dubey, one of the leaders in the project, tells the New York Times that although they were normally really good at finding patterns at Google, they just couldn’t find any strong patterns here. It seemed to be irrelevant who was on the team.

While the researchers struggled to find out what was what, something interesting appeared in the academic literature: Group norms. That is, the unwritten rules for how groups should behave together. Could this be something? Data from over a hundred teams, over more than a year, indicated that this was the most important key to improvement. The researchers concluded that they had found the answer. Now it was just a matter of understanding which norms were most important.

The elusive ingredient for incredible teams

When the researchers came across the concept of psychological safety in one of the research reports, it was as if everything fell into place. Many employees had told about how it felt, working in different teams. What the other members of the team made them feel. Having clear shared goals and a culture of holding each other accountable for results was also important. Yet psychological safety proved to be the most critical component in creating truly great teams.

So what did Google learn through all this? An important lesson is that it is difficult to distinguish between private life and work. It is not possible to leave everything at home. In order to be able to be properly present at work, employees needed to feel safe. It also included being able to share things that happened outside of work with colleagues. There could, for example, be major crises such as illness or a break-up, or other factors that played a role in how they felt.

Although Google didn’t really invent anything groundbreaking with this project, the Aristotle Project serves as a powerful reminder: When companies try to optimise, they often forget that success is built on experiences that cannot be optimised. Such as discussions about how we want to be together and how other team members made us feel. Without psychological safety in place, employees spend too much time on office politics and on trying to look good.

Psychological safety should be something that all leaders are concerned about. The alternative is less satisfied employees who do not feel good at work – and who do not perform as well as they really can.

References and further reading

Want to learn more? Check these out:

Want to learn more about building amazing teams with high psychological safety? Start with these courses…

  1. Team Foundations: Unlocking High Performance (ICP)
  2. Agile Team Facilitator (ICP-ATF)
  3. Agile Team Coach (ICP-ACC)

The article was written by Siri O. Kvalø, CEO of AWA Norway (read the original in Norwegian here). It has been translated to English by Gude Hudson-Gool Do you have input for the article, tips for improvement or something you are wondering about? Get in touch and let us know.

Curious about Agile ways of working? We answer your most frequently asked questions here.

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