Employees seek a workplace where they can connect with their colleagues and feel a sense of community. This requires an environment of psychological safety, where team members feel free to express themselves without fear of punishment for speaking up. Learn all about fostering an environment of psychological safety at work.
What does it mean to have psychological safety in the workplace?
What does the term “safety in the workplace” mean to you?
At first, it might evoke images of Wet Floor placards, or Caution: Hot Coffee labels. Maybe you get stressed out thinking about OSHA regulations. Not inconsequential stuff, but these more traditional markers only scratch the surface.
Businesses are still learning to broaden their definition—and largely for the better. We know now that it also means adhering to COVID protocols, protecting people from any form of harassment, and promoting security of another sort: psychological safety.
It’s not enough to simply ensure people won’t slip and fall, or say you won’t tolerate ignorance and insensitivity. You need to create a work environment that cultivates inclusion and collaboration, and allows folks to respectfully challenge the status quo.
What does a culture that promotes psychological safety in the workplace look like? The answer may vary by the size and makeup of an organization, but there are many layers to consider.
Here, we’ll cover:
- A brief history of psychological safety
- The four stages of psychological safety
- Defining psychological safety at work
- What psychological safety reveals about your culture
- The growing importance of psychological safety in the workplace
- Creating more psychological safety at work
- Leadership and psychological safety
- What psychological safety looks like in a remote or hybrid workplace
- How do you know if your employees feel safe?
- Making psychological safety a priority
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A brief history of psychological safety
Dr. Amy C. Edmondson is often credited with coining the term “psychological safety”—and, more particularly, framing the concept in workplace terms. In 1999, Edmondson defined psychological safety in the workplace as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”
Before Edmondson, various researchers had explored the idea of psychological safety, positing that its presence reduced interpersonal risk and made for a generally healthier workplace. Harvard Business Review covers the topic extensively.
It’s a relatively simple concept, yet one that was rare in practice for decades—even centuries. For years, many organizations operated as pseudo dictatorships, with one foreman, director, or executive mandating the way work was approached. Fear of retribution reigned. Workers, whether on an assembly line in a factory or at typewriters in an office, were generally expected to put up and shut up—feelings and ideas be damned.
But Edmondson—and before her, thinkers like W.E. Deming and William Kahn—challenged that notion. They believed that psychological safety was not only essential to fostering new ideas and innovation, but that its absence in the workplace actually enabled errors.
Deming is credited with saying: “Where there is fear, there will be wrong figures.”
Today’s workers want more. They value community in the workplace, and they crave connection. But that connection is only possible when team members feel safe, unafraid of being reprimanded or punished for speaking up, expressing alternative ideas, or simply making mistakes. More employers recognize the importance of psychological safety, but they have little idea how to cultivate it.
The four stages of psychological safety
Psychological safety can be viewed in stages of feelings. You feel:
- Safe to learn
- Safe to contribute
- Safe to challenge the status quo
Each stage is distinct in the sort of safety it promotes. And while not exactly linear, you generally can’t progress toward challenger safety without first establishing the other areas. That is, if an employee feels the workplace is inclusive and enables learning, they will be more likely to feel safe contributing to discussions—and ultimately challenging norms.
As the Center for Creative Leadership noted, psychological safety “doesn’t mean everybody is nice to each other at all times.” Rather, it’s about respecting other perspectives, and being willing to work through conflict with the understanding that everyone is coming from a place of positive, mutual intent.
Charkie Quarcoo, Program Manager for Change@Work at The Predictive Index, likens challenger safety to not needing protective gear:
“It’s comfort or safety to engage in rigorous conversation or dialogue,” she said, when asked how true psychological safety in the workplace feels.
“There’s not a fear of filtering—or even a need to filter. I think of it also from an inclusive standpoint, a sense of belonging without having to have that armor. So you don’t feel you have to exhale at the end of every day.”
In connecting inclusive safety with challenger safety—the ability to remove both armor and filter—Quarcoo highlights the circular nature of psychological safety. You can work through the phases independently, but you can’t achieve total safety without establishing all four.
Many businesses are still working on creating psychological safety at one level of the organization—and that’s OK. If team safety is most important for your people, then that’s a worthy priority. Once established, it can serve as the catalyst for other forms of safety elsewhere in the organization.