Understanding Psychological Safety in the Workplace


Writen by Mindole Clark

How to build the perfect team. Psychological safety means that mutual respect and trust are essential between team members, and leaders should create an atmosphere of interpersonal risk taking in order to boost performance. 

What is psychological safety, and why is it important? The term was coined by Amy Edmundson in 1999, but psychological safety has drawn a lot of attention recently, with more and more companies seeking to integrate the concept into their own structures. 

Edmundson was initially focused on team efficacy. She was confused by the results of her study on hospital patient-care teams, because it showed that better hospital teams make more mistakes, rather than fewer ones. Edmundson was examining whether or not hospital workers would report medication errors. She found that in some teams, giving this information was clear and done without hesitation, but in other teams, the employees were less willing to speak up, and this was largely out of fear that doing so would put them at risk of being blamed or punished. The key factor was the team’s interpersonal relationship. This determined whether an employee felt safe enough to speak up about a potentially dangerous or harmful mistake. (Edmundson, 1999.)

Employees don’t want to look incompetent or ill-informed. Because of this, employees will hesitate to ask questions, offer ideas, admit mistakes, or criticise the status quo. Psychologists call this practice of self-regulation by employees management. Edmundson claims that these habits will inhibit learning experiences, as well as decrease innovation. Edmundson distinguishes between team psychological safety from team cohesiveness, because cohesiveness tends to make colleagues less likely to disagree, no matter what.  Psychological safety is about interpersonal risks. Team members should be able to speak up in the workplace without fear of punishment or ridicule. 

In 2015, Google published research from Project Aristotle, a two year study designed to reveal what makes the perfect team. The researchers’ initial hypothesis was that the best teams were made by placing the right combinations of people– in terms of personality traits such as introversion or extraversion– within the same team. However, as they compiled more and more data, they began to see that the “who” of the best teams were irrelevant. Instead, the researchers began focusing on group norms. “Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards, and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather,” (Duhigg, 2016), and they exert a large degree of influence, regardless of whether they are implicit or explicit. When Google’s researchers turned their focus onto group norms, they found that psychological safety was of the most vital importance to a team’s success. If you are in a leadership position at your work, take note. Transformational leaders who listen, encourage respect, and establish a consistent, collaborative environment are creating psychological safety. This improves employee well-being and performance!


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