Psychological Safety in the Workplace


Psychological Safety is a term that’s thrown around a lot. In this post, we will try to address this hot topic and answer some of the burning questions surrounding it, such as: What is psychological safety? Why is it so important to have psychological safety in the workplace? How do you know if your team has it? How can you create it if your team does not have it?

We all dread being the bearer of bad news, but what if your team has put in the work but isn’t getting the desired results? You’d have to suspend what you are doing and report to your superiors about the latest development – the underwhelming results. It’s good to take the initiative and face problems head-on, no matter how big or challenging.

Now, as a person who’s so big on being on the front foot, imagine you presented the reports of the latest developments to your manager – one that shows how underwhelming the team’s results had been. Understandably, you’d be nervous, expect the worst and prepare answers for questions such as: How did we let this happen? What could we have done to prevent this? However, what came out of the manager’s mouth was: What lesson have you learned from this experience? Not only will you be shocked, but you will also feel relieved and reinvigorated.

There is a crucial lesson to pick out from this event: There is a positive side to everything. In almost every situation on earth, no matter how messed up it might seem, there is something positive we can pick out from it that can serve as a cue to avoid such situations in the future. Going back to the above scenario, with that question, the manager was trying to build psychological safety within his team. Learning is a crucial aspect of the business life, and it’s instrumental to how we evolve and perform in the future. If we don’t learn from our mistakes, we are bound to repeat them.

What is Psychological Safety?

According to Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor and author of The Fearless Organization, who coined the phrase “team psychological safety,” Team psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that it’s OK to take risks, to express their ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes — all without fear of negative consequences. As Edmondson puts it, “it’s felt permission for candor.”

During her PhD studies, Edmondson conducted research to find the correlation between effective teamwork in hospitals and mistakes made in the team. She expected to find that the more effective and successful the team were, the less error they made. However, contrary to her belief, she discovered that most effective teams committed more errors. Why? Because they were more willing to report their mistakes, felt safe while at it, and consequently were able to carry out subsequent research to seek better ways of doing things, which led to a more efficient overall team performance.

“This is a group level phenomenon — it shapes the learning behavior of the group and in turn affects that team’s performance and therefore organizational performance” – Amy Edmondson, PhD

The “team” in team psychological safety is important. “This is a group level phenomenon — it shapes the learning behavior of the group and in turn affects that team’s performance and therefore organizational performance,” she says. Although it does feel as though the sense of safety to speak up and voice one’s opinion might be attributed to individuals in the team, it goes without saying that this term is not an individual attribute. Every team member has the same sense of psychological safety as opposed to individuals working in another team. That is why the agile team is collectively examined regarding its individual members’ safety.

Why is it so Important to Have Psychological Safety in the Workplace?

Simply put, an organization’s bottom line as well as retention rate depends on the psychological safety of its employees. An organization with a team with high levels of psychological safety tends to produce better consistent results than one where people are scared to voice their opinions. Not only does it unlock a new level of creativity in the team, but it also ensures their contribution to the company’s goals is of the highest quality. When you feel your input is valued, you will do your absolute best to make it come to fruition.

People come from different walks of life and have been faced with diverse, unique experiences, so when they offer their ideas about a situation similar to what they’ve experienced, it tends to come from a place of empathy and expertise. When such diverse opinions are welcomed as it is done in a psychologically safe team, creative solutions to problems abound. Studies have shown that organizations are better off with an open hand policy when it comes to diversity of thought and opinions.

People come from different walks of life and have been faced with diverse, unique experiences, so when they offer their ideas about a situation similar to what they’ve experienced, it tends to come from a place of empathy and expertise.

With psychological safety firmly instilled in the team, members are more engaged, vocal and motivated to take on tasks and champion innovative ideas that will drive the company forward. They know their decisions are backed, and even in the event that that wasn’t the case, they are not left in the dark as to what went wrong. There is a free-flowing loop of constructive feedback that leads to better decision-making in the future. Lastly, a company that embraces sound psychological safety ethics will reap a culture of learning and improvement. When employees are on an unending journey to keep learning and improving themselves, it’s a win-win situation for all parties.

How Do You Know If Your Team Has it?

There are a number of ways to determine if your team is psychologically safe. But a sure-fire way to find out is via a quick (and anonymous) survey. Well, if you need to know something and you are damn sure someone has the answers, why not just ask them? That’s the logic behind this method – developed by the originator of the word itself. As a team leader, you can ask the following questions, and the responses you get will give you an idea of the level of psychological safety present in the team:

  • Members of this team are able to bring up their problems and tough issues.
  • People on this team sometimes accept others for being different.
  • If you make a mistake on this team, it is not held against you.
  • Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.
  • It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  • It isn’t difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  • No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.

Steps to Creating a Psychologically Safe Team

Working on a team characterized by silence is draining for everyone. And the difficulty associated with reversing that kind of tense atmosphere can’t be emphasized enough. It’s incredibly tough, hence the need to set the tone right from the get-go. So, here’s how leaders can help create a more psychologically safe workplace:

Clearly emphasize the importance of psychological safety in the team. Make the team realize the importance of the environment being psychologically safe for everyone by ensuring they freely ask for help and interact with one another to promote inclusion.

Ensure everyone speaks up. Embrace opinions with an open-minded, compassionate listening ear. Stay curious to listen when someone challenges the status quo.

Set expectations for failure management. Risk-takers are goal-getters. As much as you want to balance how your employees embark on experiments, do well to encourage some form of risk-taking. Every innovation came from someone who learned from their mistake and did better on the next try.

Embrace dialogue and debate. An open floor of dialogues and agreeing to disagree helps employees resolve conflicts of ideas productively. A clear expectation regarding team changes sets the tone and prevents further strife.

Pay close attention to patterns. You can check how convenient it is for specific team members to speak up. Some find it relatively easier than others. What you can do here is encourage a similar level of psychological safety for everyone.

Celebrate wins. No achievement is too small. No milestone, too minute. Celebrate them all. You build trust and mutual respect across the board by fostering this sort of positive energy and meaningful interactions among members.


On a concluding note, it’s essential to consider the kind of culture you want to create as an establishment. We do want people to voice their opinions. You do want them to take initiative and be proactive. You do want to create a fertile atmosphere for innovative ideas. Having said that, it would be best if you also strike a balance to keep people in check when they want to go overboard. As Oscar Wilde once put it, everything in moderation, including moderation.