An introduction to psychological safety

The power of being vulnerable in the workplace

Members of high-performing teams must be comfortable appearing vulnerable when they collaborate. Open leaders can help them.

plastic game pieces on a board
Image credits : 
x

Subscribe now

Get the highlights in your inbox every week.

In open organizations, psychological safety is critical to high-performing teams. "Psychological safety" refers to a state in which team members feel comfortable taking risks and appearing vulnerable in front of each other—necessary ingredients for creativity, curiosity, and diversity of ideas.

For many of us, however, the leadership practices necessary for cultivating psychological safety aren't our defaults. Creating psychologically safe environments requires a fundamental shift in mindset, behavior, and communication.

In this two-part series, I'll explain psychological safety and explore some messy, real-life examples where shifting my own mindset and behavior has shaped the context of safety my team needs to thrive.

Harvard coins the term

In 1999, Harvard professor Amy Edmondson was part of a research team studying the rate of human-related medication errors in modern hospitals. Her work, as part of a larger research effort, sought to ask and answer one question: Do better hospital care teams make fewer mistakes?

Researchers used a standard team survey measure to assess team effectiveness, and, for six months, trained nurse investigators visited the hospitals to gather data. Initial research showed that better teams were making more mistakes, not fewer. Setting out to solve this puzzle, Edmonson proved a hypothesis that better teams were in fact not making more mistakes. They simply were willing and able to talk openly about their mistakes and actively explore ways to reduce errors.

Discovering this difference between team climates, Edmonson coined the term "psychological safety" to name the condition that seemed to set them apart. She defined it as "a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes."

Google research brings it mainstream

In 2015, Google published research on team effectiveness that revealed a surprising insight about psychological safety, bringing the concept to the forefront of mainstream leadership conversations.

A group of employees from Google's People Operations group conducted a rigorous analysis to answer what seemed to be a simple question: What makes a Google team effective?

According to Google's re:Work site, after reviewing over 180 Google teams, conducting more than 200 interviews, and analyzing 250-plus attributes they discovered "five key dynamics that set successful teams apart" from the rest:

  1. Psychological safety
  2. Dependability
  3. Structure and clarity
  4. Meaning
  5. Impact

All five play a role in establishing team culture. But the first trait, psychological safety, was substantially more crucial to overall success. Ultimately, Google researchers determined "who is on the team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions."

Interdependence and impression management

For many of us, however, the leadership practices necessary for cultivating psychological safety aren't our defaults.

Psychological safety isn't vital on teams without interdependence between members. The higher the interdepence, however, the deeper the need for team members to feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. Yet risk taking and vulnerability are at odds with what social psychologists call "impression management."

Impression management is the often unconscious effort to control or influence the impressions people have of us. It's a form of self protection most people can enact with a good degree of success by age six. By the time we mature to working adults, many impression management behaviors have become second nature. As a result, they can cause team members to suppress their voices, especially in the absence of psychological safety.

No one wants to look ignorant, incompetent, intrusive, or negative. Consequently, team members can become so busy managing impressions in the workplace they don't ask questions, admit mistakes, offer ideas, or critique the status quo. As Edmonson explains, "This is a problem because every time we withhold, we rob ourselves and our colleagues of small moments of learning, and we don't innovate. We don't contribute to building a better organization."

Grounded theory researcher and University of Houston professor Brené Brown calls this self-protecting behavior "armoring up." In her latest work, Dare to Lead, she shares, "We all use armor to protect ourselves, but that armor is heavy and prevents us from growing, being seen, and being in connection with others. When we're in fear, or an emotion is driving self-protection, we assemble our armor."

Cultivating psychological safety

Our goal then, as open leaders, is deepening our understanding of these human fundamentals so we can cultivate an environment where team members feel safe to drop their armor, take risks, and be vulnerable. Doing this requires careful and deliberate practice, because the leadership behaviors necessary for establishing psychological safety aren't always obvious or common. In my next article, then, I'll share some messy, real-life examples from my own experiences working to create psychologically safe environments.

About the author

Kathleen Hayes - Kathleen is the marketing leader at Lightbend, an open organization at the frontline of many of the innovations in cloud-native software development.