Creating work cultures where people feel safe to contribute is the key to learning, innovation and growth.
Despite Aristotle’s bold claim that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, collaborating with other people at work is not always plain sailing. At their best, teams and project groups can be positive for individuals and their organisations, places where the real work gets done, ideas are conceived and tested, projects planned and implemented and we feel supported and enabled we achieve more than we ever could our own. But most of us have also had the opposite experience, working in teams dogged by friction, personality clashes and posturing, and where our effectiveness is hampered by a lack of clarity about what we need to and how we can best get there.
It’s a conundrum famously explored by Google’s Project Aristotle, a large-scale internal research project designed to test Aristotle’s claim and to answer a simple question: “What makes a team effective at Google?”. Over a number of years, the Project developed sophisticated models to define and evaluate the effectiveness of people working together, collecting and analysing data to identify the characteristics and dynamics of successful teams.
The researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together. They identified five key factors that improved those team dynamics. And number one on that list, by far the most important, was psychological safety. Teams where members felt they would be supported, rather than punished or humiliated for speaking up, admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea were more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas, bring in more revenue, and be rated as effective twice as often by executives.
Not all of us work in environments like Google. But if we want to create positive workplace cultures characterised by collaborative, effective and high-performance teams, psychological safety is a powerful enabler wherever we work and whatever we do.
What is psychological safety?
As far back as 1965, organisational psychologists, Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis were writing about the need for psychological safety to help people cope with the uncertainty and anxiety or organisational change. Schein went on to say that it was a factor in helping people to overcome defensiveness and “learning anxiety”, especially when things go wrong; a way to help people to focus on achieving shared goals rather than on self-protection. This early work was built on in the 1980s by William Kahn, who established the link between safe work environments and employee engagement.
But it’s through the work of Harvard professor, Amy Edmondson, author of the book, The Fearless Organisation, that the idea has gained widespread traction.
Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes”. Psychological safety exists in an organisation when colleagues “trust and respect each other and feel able – even obligated – to be candid.” She believes that it’s a workplace essential that leaders can and must create.
Her starting point is that all of us are subject to what she calls “subtle interpersonal risks” at work. Whether explicitly or implicitly, we’re being judged and evaluated all the time, not just by our boss, but by our peers and colleagues. At any moment, we might be perceived as incompetent, ignorant or intrusive if we do things like ask questions, admit mistakes, come up with ideas or point out flaws in plans.
It’s this desire to manage the impression we might give that makes us risk averse and stops us from speaking up – and that psychological safety is designed to mitigate.
Edmondson is also clear about what psychological safety is not. It’s not about being nice or lowering performance expectations (of which more below). It’s not a personality factor, akin to extraversion or assertiveness; it’s much more about the climate in which we operate. And, although it has much in common with trust, it’s not the same. Trust is about the relationship between two individuals or parties and has to be developed. Safety (or not) is experienced at a group level and immediately. Trust is about giving others the benefit of the doubt; safety is about others giving us the benefit of the doubt when we choose to speak up.
Why psychological safety matters
In her much-watched TED Talk, Edmondson expands on the idea that we need to create cultures at work where people no longer feel the need to self-protect and manage the impression they make. To illustrate the problem, she gives the examples of a nurse who is unable to express her concerns about a patient’s medication because she doesn’t want to be bawled out by his doctor; a pilot who doesn’t call out a more senior officer’s misjudgement for fear of reprisal and a senior executive who has grave doubts about an upcoming takeover – but says nothing because he’s only recently joined the company.
These kinds of “dangerous silences” have potential consequences. At worst, they might be life-threatening: the lowly NASA engineer who “felt it was not right to speak” about a potential problem with the Space Shuttle Columbia, just days before it exploded on re-entry; the fear of authority that paralysed operators at the nuclear power plant as the Chernobyl disaster unfolded.
Even in our routine, day-to-day work, we’ve probably all had the experience of not asking a question we really want to ask in front of certain people or keeping an idea to ourselves in case it’s seen as a bit, well, daft. Edmondson identifies several common taken-for-granted rules about whether or not to speak up at work, including not criticising anything our boss might have been involved in; not speaking up unless we have a 100% watertight case or fear that what we say or do might be career limiting. Sound familiar?
The problem is that if we work in organisations where too much time is spent playing by (or second guessing) these kinds of rules and on managing impressions, we have less time to spend more positively creating a better organisation. When we don’t speak up, we “rob ourselves and our colleagues of small moments of learning”. We don't challenge the status quo; we don’t come up with and share new ideas and we don’t innovate.
Safety, for Edmondson, is inextricably linked to learning. In a Harvard Business Review article, she asserts that the central management challenge we face today is to enable and inspire knowledge workers to solve problems we can’t anticipate. To do this, we need to move from too narrow a focus on execution as efficiency and instead embrace execution as learning, not just being more efficient at what we already do, but developing the ability to learn more quickly for the future too. In the face of uncertainty, we need all the brainpower and diverse voices we can muster.
That may create the rationale for speaking up, but before we can implement execution as learning, we need to foster safe environments in which people feel able to. Edmondson compares managers who admire and expect to be rewarded solely for their decisiveness, efficiency and action to children in schools who are stymied by a Carol Dweck fixed mindset. The uncertainty implicit in spending time on reflection, inquiry and collaboration makes them uncomfortable, so they double down on what they know and are more likely to avoid, and encourage others to avoid, the risks of questioning and experimentation.
In contrast, in psychologically safe environments, people are willing to offer up ideas, questions and concerns, and even to fail – and when we do, we learn. In a Dweck growth mindset way, we can see tasks as opportunities for learning and failure as an opportunity to improve. If, as leaders, we can create the right tone of openness, humility and curiosity, we are creating the right environments for others to learn too.
The greater the level of uncertainty in a workplace and the more we have to collaborate to get things done, the greater the need for psychological safety. We need it to take risks, ask questions, be curious, raise concerns and think creatively. And if we are to collaborate with others who may not be natural allies – which we must do if we are to stress test and improve our ideas – then we need good levels of safety to encourage productive disagreement. Without it, even the most emotionally hardy among us is likely to retreat to self-protection and entrenched positions defined by what we already know.
Psychological safety and performance
None of this means that people should not be held accountable or not expected to perform. As we’ve seen, psychological safety is not about being 'nice', or about lowering performance standards; it’s about candour, making possible productive disagreement and the free exchange of ideas. Safety is a requirement for the openness, flexibility and strong relationships we need to tackle the challenges we face. When we can be more honest with each other, more challenging (in the right way) and work better together, the chances are we’ll also be more effective.
Psychological safety and performance standards are two separate, equally important dimensions, both of which affect individual, team and organisational performance.
When both standards and safety are low, workplaces become apathy zones; people choose self-protection over exertion every time.
When workplaces have high psychological safety but low standards, they are comfort zones. People may enjoy working together but the lack of challenge means there are limited opportunities for learning and innovation.
When performance standards are high but safety is low, people enter the anxiety zone. These are workplaces where people feel inhibited about speaking up and, ultimately, work quality and performance will suffer.
The optimal situation is a high performance and high safety learning zone, where people can learn from and collaborate with each other.
In teams and organisations low on psychological safety, micromanagement, fear and bullying often raise their ugly heads, which can lead to toxic and destructive organisational cultures.
Edmondson shares in her book the story of the US financial services company Wells Fargo as one of the more extreme examples of how levels of safety, culture and performance intersect. The company attempted a top-down initiative to cross-sell their services, using targets that were ultimately unattainable – but were heavily enforced on pain of dismissal; employees who did not do well enough were publicly criticised or fired.
Unsurprisingly, the embattled bankers began to engage in questionable practices to meet their sales targets, including opening accounts without customer approval or lying to customers about how their products worked. Ultimately, the scandal broke, and the bank was charged with widespread misconduct. In the aftermath, it was found that several employees had tried to report unethical behaviour to their supervisors and even to an ethics hotline; some lost their jobs for whistleblowing. Rather than learning from the experiences of people on the ground, the company persisted with its relentless pursuit of overambitious targets that could only be achieved by deceit. Operating “in a culture of fear that brooked no dissent” was not only bad for the individuals concerned; it also led to the company’s downfall.
How to foster psychological safety
If safety is a pre-requisite for the learning we need to stay ahead of the game, then how can we foster it in our organisations?
Fortunately, just as negative leadership behaviours can be contagious, so can positive ones. Modelling behaviours that support psychological safety will help to spread safer cultures more widely.
Stanford University’s Laura Delizonna reminds us why psychological safety is both so fragile – and so powerful. When we feel unsafe, perhaps feeling at risk from our boss or a colleague, our brains are likely to trigger a 'fight-or-flight' survival response, an amygdala hijack that shuts down all but the most essential brain functions, including perspective and analytical reasoning. Not a fertile ground for strategic thinking or openness to learning.
Conversely, when we operate in environments that are challenging but not threatening (Edmondson’s learning zone), we can benefit from our brains’ broaden and build mode, characterised by high levels of oxytocin and built on positive emotions such as trust, curiosity, confidence and inspiration. When we feel safe, we become more “open-minded, resilient, motivated and persistent”.
Picking up on Google’s Project Aristotle, Delizonna shares some of the key tactics used by Google to sustain the broaden and build mode and embed psychological safety in their teams, including approaching conflict in the spirit of collaboration rather than competition; treating each other as humans; anticipating (and reflecting on) how others will react to what we say or do; replacing blame with curiosity; actively soliciting feedback – and, crucially, measuring and monitoring how safe people feel at work.
A leader’s toolkit
Amy Edmondson has also developed a toolkit to help leaders build psychological safety. It’s based on three key stages:
Set the stage
Accomplishes shared expectations and meaning
This is about framing what needs to be done in terms of learning rather than execution. It means:
- setting clear expectations about failure: failures will happen and our primary goal is to learn from them.
- emphasising uncertainty and interdependence: remember, the more uncertainty we face, the more we need contributions from a diverse range of voices. People need to be encouraged to be curious and alert; to have a responsibility to work collaboratively with others, and to take interpersonal risks to share ideas and concerns.
- clarifying purpose: identify what’s at stake, why it matters and for whom. If we feel we can share in this sense of purpose, then we’re much more likely to be motivated, and to overcome our fear of interpersonal risk.
Unsurprisingly, how safe people feel is often associated with how they feel about their own boss and how that boss behaves towards them. Traditionally, bosses were seen as having all the answers. They gave orders, assessed our performance and we were simply expected to do as we were told, often on Wells Fargo-like “produce – or else” terms. In this context, it’s hardly surprising that we’d want to think carefully about being candid.
To foster psychological safety, we need to reframe the role of the boss as the person who sets direction, invites input to clarify and improve, and creates the conditions for learning and continued excellence. Then, everyone can be seen as valued contributors with important knowledge and insight.
Shows confidence that voices are welcome
The second element in the toolkit is to invite participation from others in ways that people find compelling and genuine:
- acknowledge our own fallibility, our vulnerability: we don’t and can’t know everything. Adopting a learning mindset where we’re both humble and curious cuts down the interpersonal risk people feel. We need to own our errors and shortcomings and to encourage contributions by saying things like “I may be missing something here” or “It would be really helpful to have your thoughts on this”.
- be curious: ask lots of good questions and listen actively to the answers.
- create structures to encourage input: safe forums for discussion, with agreed guidelines for contributions.
Pixar’s innovative Braintrust shows how this right kind of structure can help. At Braintrust sessions, a small group meets every few months to discuss movies in progress, to provide feedback to the director and to help solve any problems. There are rules; it’s not a free-for-all. Feedback must be constructive, posited as suggestions rather than prescriptions, and must come from a place of empathy (most of the group will have been on the receiving end of feedback at some stage, so they know how it feels). But the key is still candour; the process only works because people feel safe enough to give and receive honest feedback to one another.
Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder, describes the Braintrust as “benevolent. It wants to help. It has no agenda”. He also attributes at least some of the studio’s success to the way they’ve been able to harness candour in this way; they make better films as a result.
Creates an orientation towards continuous learning
When people do take the risk and speak up, we need to react in ways that acknowledge and respond to what’s been said positively. Even if the idea is a daft one, or we’ve tried something that didn’t work, we’ll only develop those cultures of learning if we:
- express appreciation for the contribution made: listen, acknowledge and thank the person who has spoken. Say things like “Thank you for bringing that up”. Whether the suggestion is good or bad, the initial response must be one of appreciation if it’s to be followed up by the chance to learn. Edmondson calls this the “mini-reward” of thanks for having the courage to speak up.
- destigmatise failure: when things go wrong, look forward, offer help and brainstorm what should happen next. Rather than having people hide their failures to protect themselves, we want open discussion, fast learning and innovation.
This does not mean that people should not be sanctioned if they consistently violate rules or take risky shortcuts that put themselves, their colleagues or their organisations at risk.
Psychological safety is, according to Edmondson, “reinforced rather than harmed by fair, thoughtful responses to potentially dangerous, harmful or sloppy behaviour.” It’s not an invitation for people to say and do whatever they want. It’s about creating cultures of mutual respect where we can use a shared vocabulary and established rules – as with Pixar’s Braintrust – to encourage everyone to contribute in appropriate, constructive and performance-boosting ways.
Psychological safety is fundamental to building the learning organisations we need to tackle the uncertainty and change that characterise our knowledge economy and 21st-century workplaces. We need it to create and sustain Edmondson’s fearless organisations, staffed with people who are confident and enabled to contribute, question and share, even at the risk of not quite hitting the mark, or even failing, all in service of learning.
Wherever we sit in our organisations, and especially as leaders, we have it in our gift to use our words and actions to mitigate the interpersonal risk everyone feels when we put our heads above the parapet, to champion self-expression over self-protection. It’s our passport to the creativity, innovation and growth that we all crave and need.
Test your understanding
- Describe what psychological safety is.
- Explain what Amy Edmondson means by the phrase learning zone.
- Identify the three stages of Edmondson’s leadership toolkit for developing psychological safety.
What does it mean for you?
- Reflect on how well you already champion psychological safety as a leader. Take our leadership self-assessment as a guide, and consider what you might change as a result.
- Share with your team this simple set of questions designed to measure the levels of safety they feel at work.
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