It happened during a workshop I was leading on creativity for a board of trustees at a small college. A suggestion came up—and I don’t even remember what it was—that was new. It was something this group had never contemplated. As the group discussed the idea, one could sense a growing enthusiasm. Then one of the senior members of the group hopped out of his chair and, through clenched teeth, declared, “I will NEVER go along with that idea!”
The room became silent. Another member of the group said, “Maybe we should leave that subject for another day.” At that, the topic was dropped.
They discarded an idea that had potential for improving the organization. One man’s behavior muted the creative energy of the group for the rest of the meeting.
The experts in organizational behavior would say Psychological Safety had been broken.
I am reluctant to use the term “Psychological Safety,” even though it is the acceptable language in the field. The reason I am reluctant is first because it sounds like psychobabble. You know—the kind created by some bug-eyed professor wearing half-inch thick glasses with black plastic frames.
But I’m also reluctant because I fear people confuse it with “Safe Spaces.” Originally, safe spaces were places where groups could gather where it was safe to express their ideas without fear of recrimination.
It has evolved into places where one group can silence the speech of individuals who wish to express ideas that the group considers unacceptable. Safe spaces insulate students from having to encounter challenging ideas. They pose a danger to freedom of speech and to genuine dialogue.
So, What is Psychological Safety?
It is an environment where people feel confident to express their ideas. It is a climate in which people feel they will be supported when they try something new, even if it fails. It is a habitat where people are confident they will not be shamed, embarrassed, or punished for speaking their honest opinion. At its core, psychological safety is a setting in which people can be themselves.
Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson coined the term in 1999 in her seminal article, “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. She defined it as:
a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.
Psychological safety is what people have when they feel they are among friends they can trust, where someone won’t throw them under the bus if they speak a new thought or try a new idea. It is a place where diversity of ideas is not only tolerated but encouraged.
Researchers have been studying Psychological Safety since Edmondson wrote her article and we now know a lot more about it. It has been linked with multiple positive business results, including:
- Employee engagement
- Satisfaction, and
But, how does one create a psychologically safe environment?
Again, the research has given us some insight into that question. They have identified several factors as contributing to psychological safety. Here is a list of some of these factors:
- A positive relationship with the leader. If the leader is aloof and defensive, it will be hard to create a climate where people feel safe to express their ideas.
- A supportive work environment. The support employees get from their peers is especially important.
- Interdependence. Giving people projects they work on together, where each member of the team needs the input of every other member.
- Quality relationships. People feel safe when they are among friends.
Benjamin Franklin once said: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” When we work to create an environment of psychological safety, we allow people to get involved. In doing so, the organization gains valuable input that is otherwise buried beneath the fear to speak.
Greg Waddell provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.