When Google studied their 180 teams to answer the question “What makes the team effective?”, there was one factor that stood out the most: psychological safety. What is more, other important factors were all underpinned by psychological safety.
In a workplace, many of us have experienced a situation in which we didn’t feel comfortable to raise concerns or offer ideas due to the fear of being criticized or punished by other members of the team. This is a clear sign of a workplace that has low psychological safety.
On the other hand, there are many benefits to being part of a team that lets you be your authentic self and not be criticized or picked on as a result of engaging in open and honest communication.
Amy Edmondson is one of the first researchers to have studied psychological safety in the workplace. Her book, Fearless Organization, is a product of many years of research and it serves as a guide on how to create a culture of psychological safety at work.
In the book, she highlights the main findings on the importance of psychological safety to substantiate why organizations should take steps to foster a psychologically safe environment. Here are some key findings from her work:
One of the most important signs of a company with low psychological safety is the presence of a silence behaviour. Members of the team often struggle with speaking about personal or organizational issues that deprive the company from solving this problem and improving the work process.
Psychologically safe workplaces are less likely to experience this scenario as the team members don’t hold back the ideas, questions, or feedback that they think matter.
These speaking up behaviours are precursors of improvement, innovation, and engagement.
Learning at work starts with psychological safety. The learning centers in our brain function optimally in a team climate that we feel secure in.
If this is not satisfied, we avoid learning behaviours such as asking questions, making mistakes and learning from them, and offering new ideas.
A diagram from Amy Edmonson’s book “Fearless Organization” illustrates the balance between psychological safety and performance standards of the team.
In this figure, the learning zone is achieved only when both the standards and expectations for performance are at high levels. This optimal zone encourages individuals to actively learn from each other while collaborating.
Unfortunately, today’s organizations are very likely to fall into an anxiety zone, a zone in which the expectations from the employees are high but at the same time, the teams lack psychological safety.
The interpersonal anxiety causes members of the team to avoid sharing their ideas and questions which is often very unfulfilling for the person and damaging for the company.
In today’s workplace, collaborative work has been gaining popularity which means that the effective communication is the key to high performance.
This highlights the need of creating a climate where candor is encouraged, mistakes are reported and tolerated, and that the members of the team are not afraid of rejection or embarrassment if they bring up ideas, questions, or concerns they might have.
This working climate helps individuals to unleash their full potential and take risks that bring innovation and engagement which in turn leads to higher performance1,2.
In summary, Edmonson’s work emphasizes the essential role of psychological safety in creating a team where team members are not afraid of speaking up with questions or concern. The members of a psychologically safe team are encouraged to be their authentic self and engage in honest conversation. Furthermore, they learn and perform better by sharing knowledge with each other and working together efficiently.
It is important to avoid underestimating the power of psychological safety and start taking action to create a “fearless organization”.