Mia Primeau and Lane McKenna

Date of Publication

October 2019

Psychological safety: Breaking the silence

We all know the feeling of “walking on eggshells” — not knowing if the environment is safe to take action or speak up and the resulting reaction of staying silent because we fear judgement or even punishment. Conversely, many of us know what it’s like to speak freely and take authentic initiative without fear of perceived consequences.

Clearly, the second scenario is healthier for individuals and also imperative for the stability and growth of an organization. Studies show that psychological safety — the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake —  is a critical indicator of workplace performance. To learn more, we spoke with Patty Purpur DeVries, MS, Associate Director of Faculty and Staff Wellness (Stanford Health Improvement Program).

What is psychological safety and why is it important?

DeVries notes that Edgar Shein, Professor Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management, first identified the concept of psychological safety in 1965. More recently, Amy Edmondson, PhD, professor at Harvard Business School, has done some of the best work in this area, according to DeVries. Edmondson reviewed and analyzed all research to date on the concept in her 1999 paper, and by 2014 she had further refined the definition in her May 2014 TEDx talk:

“Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

Edmondson explains, in a 2014 review article, why a safe environment for speaking up is such a vital ingredient for workplace performance:

Working collaboratively is an integral part of organization life, but it often proves more interpersonally difficult than anticipated. One of the most fundamental challenges organizations face is how to manage the interpersonal threats inherent in employees admitting ignorance or uncertainty, voicing concerns and opinions, or simply being different. These threats are subtle but powerful, and they inhibit organizational learning. For people to feel comfortable speaking up with ideas or questions — an essential aspect of organizational learning — without fear of ridicule or punishment, managers must work to create a climate of psychological safety. Otherwise, interpersonal risk is a powerful force that makes effective collaboration less likely to occur, particularly when the work is characterized by uncertainty and complexity.”

DeVries concurs that the higher the level of “collaborative freedom” in an organization, the greater the likelihood of increased innovation and growth. But, to raise that level of collaborative freedom, the level of psychological safety must also be raised so that employees are more likely to share their voices, take initiatives, and ultimately contribute more to team efforts.

As Edmondson so succinctly stated in her 2014 TEDx talk,

“Every time we withhold, we rob ourselves and our colleagues of small moments of learning, and we don’t innovate ….”

As DeVries notes in her own work on workplace well-being, there are many ingredients needed for a healthy, productive workplace — such as clarity of roles, regular measurement (and rewarding) of professional fulfillment, streamlined work efficiencies — but psychological safety is one of the most important.

DeVries admires the work that Google has done in identifying the importance of psychological safety and researching its impact and educating its leaders with those findings. Google researchers set out to answer the question, “What makes a team effective at Google?” In their research project code-named Project Aristotle (a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”), Google researchers concluded (in Guide: Understand team effectiveness) that of the five key dynamics of effective teams — Psychological Safety, Dependability, Structure & Clarity, Meaning, and Impact, psychological safety is by far the most important. The Google researchers further concluded that: “Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.”

How can you best measure the psychological safety of a particular workplace?

DeVries points again to the landmark work of Edmondson — this time in her book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. To measure a team’s level of psychological safety, Edmondson asked team members how strongly they agreed or disagreed with these statements:

1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
2.  Members of your team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

Clearly, if many employees agree with statements #1, #3 and #5, the organization does not rate highly in its level of psychological safety.

As Edmondson notes, many employees “get used to” being silent, thinking that if they speak up, they will be viewed as “ignorant, incompetent, intrusive or negative.” Furthermore, managers often delude themselves into thinking that it’s better if employees just “stay quiet and figure it out on their own.” She goes on to admonish managers for taking “the easy management route” of over-valuing employees who “don’t ask questions, don’t admit weakness or mistakes, don’t offer ideas, or don’t critique the status quo.”

If my workplace isn’t as psychologically safe as it could be, what can be done?

Open communication and the chance to make mistakes

DeVries notes that the managers or team leaders in a workplace do really bear much of the responsibility for developing a better culture, including an emphasis upon enhanced psychological safety. She points to three simple things managers in a workplace can do to foster team psychological safety, as so articulately stated by Edmondson in her 2014 TEDx talk:

Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
Make explicit to your team that there is enormous uncertainty ahead, and enormous interdependence… [and that thus] we’ve got to have everybody’s brains and voices in the game. That creates the rationale for speaking up.

Acknowledge your own fallibility.
Say simple things like, “I may have missed something; I need to hear from you.” That creates more safety for speaking up.

Model curiosity and ask a lot of questions.
That actually makes a necessity for voice. 

What’s interesting is how variable “top” workplaces are in this regard. As Edmondson observes, “this positive interpersonal climate, which is conducive to learning and performance under uncertainty, does not emerge naturally. Even when employees are embedded in an organization with a strong culture, their perceptions of feeling safe to speak up, ask for help, or provide feedback tend to vary from department to department, and team to team.”

“Psychological safety is essentially a group-level phenomenon. Some of this variance can be attributed to local manager or supervisor behaviors, which convey varying messages about the consequences of taking the interpersonal risks associated with behaviors such as admitting error, asking for help, or speaking up with ideas.”

Edmondson also notes that when a workplace has cultivated an environment where team players are encouraged to speak up — even if that includes speaking critically about the direction or decisions senior management are touting, the organization as a whole ends up benefiting.

Another expert in organizational management, Brené Brown, concurs:

“To scale daring leadership and build courage in teams and organizations, we have to cultivate a culture in which brave work, tough conversations, and whole hearts are the expectation, and armor is not necessary or rewarded. We have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected.”

Embrace and welcome vulnerability

DeVries believes that managers would benefit from an understanding of (and training in) the organizational management concepts articulated by Brown, especially in her book, Dare to Lead. One of Brown’s major premises is: “Our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability.” In another of her books, Daring Greatly, Brown notes that vulnerability requires three ingredients:

  • Uncertainty
  • Risk
  • Emotional exposure

DeVries explains that, “Especially for those who are working with patients or students, curing disease or risking failure in any new endeavor, these ingredients exist already: we simply aren’t always acknowledging the vulnerability we experience each day.”

DeVries also lauds the work of Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, who developed the concept of a Growth Mindset for helping set the stage for vulnerable and authentic work. When we are willing to set down the armor, show up in a growth mindset and take risks, we will fail — but we will do so, as Teddy Roosevelt said, while “daring greatly.” And, as DeVries remarks, “Stanford values innovation and cutting-edge work, none of which is possible without uncertainty, risk and the emotional exposure of risking failure.”

Can psychological safety create a “soft” organization?

DeVries insists that creating psychological safety doesn’t mean avoiding difficult conversations, ignoring mistakes or turning a blind eye to low quality work. Nor do organizations become “weaker” or “softer” as a result.

As Brené’ Brown so succinctly states: “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” When we are unclear, we:

  • Diminish trust and engagement
  • Increase problematic behavior, including passive-aggressive behavior, talking behind people’s backs, pervasive backchannel communication (or “the meeting after the meeting”), gossip, and the “dirty yes” (when I say yes to your face and then go behind your back)
  • Decrease performance due to a lack of clarity and shared purpose

If I can’t change the team, are there ways I can improve psychological safety on my own?

DeVries is adamant that, yes, individuals can improve their own psychological safety:

“Start small, knowing you can only change yourself and your outlook. Applying positive psychology strategies, such as gratitude and self-compassion in your own life, can help shift your mindset and more positively impact those around you.”

Further, to increase psychological safety in our work teams, each of us can take steps to include others and make meaningful connections with our co-workers: “A connection is the energy that exists between people when they are felt, seen, heard, and valued; when they can give without judgement; and when they derive sustenance from the relationship” (Brené Brown). When each of us feels a connection to others, we feel safer to take risks and speak up.

DeVries goes on to articulate that each of us contributes to the positive or negative environments in which we find ourselves:

“Although we can’t change others, we can be the spark — by offering one kind word or gesture that can make a difference in another person’s day or life. We can look for the positive attributes in others and strive to look for and draw attention to the strengths of others in our meetings. Embracing a growth mindset is key as we accept that nobody is perfect. If each of us can look for positive growth in others and be open to the differing position and opinions of our teammates, we will move closer to that ideal.”

Edmondson concurs:

“The burden of collaborating and learning does not lie solely with managers. Employees can help by taking specific actions that differ in important ways from conventional wisdom about ideal employee behavior…. Challenging the status quo and offering ideas to improve process can be a vital force in helping organizations learn.”

As DeVries concludes, however, there is only so much that one employee can contribute to the psychological safety and overall cultural well-being of a group, team or organization. Ultimately, “if you have worked on your own contributions to team safety without success to the broader whole, it may be time to consider seeking ways to find another team, relationship or environment that better supports you.”

October 2019
Mia Primeau

Learn more about creating a culture of psychological safety in DeVries’s upcoming webinar on November 6, 2019 (12-1pm).