Culture and Leadership | Latest from the Lab | Psychological Safety

5 Things You May Not Know About Psychological Safety

A group of employees lifting one another up a flight of stairs in a natural environment.

It’s a phrase you may have heard around the office or read about in business publications: psychological safety. But if you’re like many, you may not completely understand what it means. Maybe you equate it with a feel-good “safe space” or think managers must create it to help employees enjoy work. Or maybe you just brush it aside as an emotion that shouldn’t hold us back from getting work done.

None of these captures the meaning or impact of psychological safety in the workplace. Amy Edmondson, the premier expert on psychological safety, defines it as, “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

It’s clear that having low psychological safety can negatively impact team performance and diminish organizational performance. Indeed, in a survey of nearly 500 respondents, NLI found that people, on average, report feeling a level of psychological safety that hovers just above 4 on a 7-point scale — not the lowest of levels but an area with lots of room for improvement.

As we’ve started to apply neural underpinnings to the habits of psychological safety, we’ve discovered some important features that may not be on your radar. Here are five to keep in mind:

Psychological safety isn’t warm and fuzzy.

Often misunderstood as being comfortable or agreeable, psychological safety is present when employees feel they’re part of an environment where challenge, conflict, and mistakes are valued, and learning is a team sport. Hallmarks of a psychologically safe environment are seen when individuals can take risks, experiment, and fail — without fear of repercussions.

When teams feel too comfortable, they aren’t productive. This is largely because when things feel easy, it can be tempting to maintain the status quo, which often ends up producing the bare minimum. “There is this profound asymmetry in the social environment which says hold back, wait and see, read the tea leaves, make sure you’re about to do or say something that other people will approve of, or else don’t do it,” Edmondson said during Your Brain at Work Live: Inclusion and Psychological Safety in an Era of Uncertainty.

While risk and creativity pave the way for innovation, the possibility of failure that comes with taking a risk doesn’t always feel good, which is what can hold us back. In fact, brain regions designed to differentiate gains and losses allow us to easily avoid potential losses. That’s why it’s important to unlock the skills and capabilities of psychological safety so our results go beyond the goal or task at hand.   

Psychological safety is created by the group.

Surprisingly, creating psychological safety isn’t just about the actions of a single person. It’s about a shared set of interactional behaviors aimed at common and aligned goals that a group creates together. This is based on years of research around how teams become cohesive and effective, which occurs by setting achievable, intrinsically motivating goals. Thus, when groups of individuals share a sense of belonging, or are part of an in-group, this engages a network in the brain that intrinsically rewards prosocial behavior and leads to an increased level of neural synchrony. Once established, working together toward common goals and being motivated to achieve them are more likely.

Psychological safety is more than an emotional feeling. It can be physical, too.

When considering forms of safety, we need to remember that our brains evolved to be really good at sensing danger, and even better at helping us avoid it. This applies in any environment where we don’t feel safe, whether it’s encountering a snake in the bushes or the uncertainty of possibly being berated for suggesting an opposing idea in a meeting. In fact, when we sense a lack of safety in any context, the limbic circuit and amygdala collectively engage and take the attention away from the areas of the brain we need to make decisions and focus on our work. Instead of performing at our best, we avoid perceived danger and become distracted.

Power can help or hurt psychological safety.

Recently, we talked with Sara Bowen, vice president of global diversity and inclusion for Boeing, about what happens when leaders embrace discomfort and seek information. She explained that when a leader was asking for feedback from engineers, he realized their silence sent a strong message. So the leader took time to engage rather than assume there was no feedback. He learned that the engineers were experiencing extreme anxiety because the deadline was unrealistic. The leader was able to support the engineers needs, ask for more time, and make sure safety was prioritized over speed.

This story touches on the very nature of why we need to increase awareness in leaders, whether they’re new to leading or well-established. Perspectives of those in positions of power are different from those under them, and the power hierarchy is one of the first pieces of information that our brain attends to. Knowing that power and hierarchy are front and center in our perception of social experiences, we have the ability to make an experience positive or negative based on how we act.

Psychological safety can save lives, but things can still go wrong.

Psychological safety isn’t the absence of things going wrong but rather the absence of the fear of negative consequences when things go wrong. Things will go wrong — that’s just life. To overcome the natural tendency to stay silent and avoid conflict, team members and leaders, in particular, need to provide support, not comfort. “A psychologically safe environment is … energizing because we’re challenged, we’re engaged, and we know that if things go wrong or if I’m not sure what to do, it’s OK,” Edmondson says.

It’s crucial in today’s knowledge-based work environment that we get psychological safety right. As Edmondson observed at the beginning of her journey: Many lives are at stake when individuals are unable to speak up. “It will always be safer to hold back than to jump in,” she says. “In today’s work environment, that can prove anywhere between catastrophic and just counterproductive. That’s created a greater need for psychological safety as things are more uncertain and more fast-moving. We are more dependent on each other, and yet, we may be at risk of not hearing from each other.”

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