Psychological Safety At Work: what do psychologically safe work teams look like?
[This text would not have been written without the support of Helen Sanderson (Twitter: @HelenWBTeam), a pragmatic and practical dreamer and founder of Wellbeing Teams, a revolutionary re-imagining of social care in England in the direction of humanity, hope, compassion and justice. I am grateful to Helen for her support to me and for her efforts to save us all in England from the indignities and suffering of the existing broken social care system. You can find more about Helen and Wellbeing Teams, at the end of this text. I am responsible for all mistakes and weaknesses in this text.]
1. Is your team at work psychologically safe?
Think for a moment about your work and the work team you are a part of. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do people feel comfortable in team meetings asking about things they do not know or they do not understand, or do they generally try to maintain an image of perfect knowledge about work matters?
- Do people feel comfortable in team meetings raising difficult issues, concerns and reservations about specific pieces of work, about ‘how things are done here’ or about how well the team works together or do these conversations take place informally outside team meetings?
- What happens when mistakes, near misses, failures and critical incidents happen? Is people’s first reaction to distance themselves from them so they are not blamed or are they seen as opportunities for team learning?
- How often do people give and receive feedback? Do people invite others who are not members of the team to give feedback on the team’s work?
- In team meetings, are all team members invited to contribute irrespective of their rank or job title?
- Do you feel that your skills and talents are valued and utilised? Are you encouraged to contribute in any way you feel able to? Or do you feel you are you expected to stay strictly within the parameters of your role and to seek permission for doing anything else?
- Have there been times when you felt that your contribution and efforts were compromised by others in the team?
- Do people ask each other and the team for help when they need it?
- In team meetings, do people feel comfortable expressing disagreement and offering dissenting views? Do team meetings include discussions and debates about work matters?
- How much do you know of your team members as people outside work?
What picture do your answers to these questions paint of your team? How much would you say this picture relates to how happy you are with your team and your place in it, and to your team’s performance?
2. What is psychological safety?
Researchers in academia and in business have found that these kinds of questions give us an insight into a very important dimension of teamwork: psychological safety. A team feels psychologically safe to its members when they share the belief that within the team they will not be exposed to interpersonal or social threats to their self or identity, their status or standing and to their career or employment, when engaging in learning behaviours such as asking for help, seeking feedback, admitting errors or lack of knowledge, trying something new or voicing work-related dissenting views. Interpersonal or social threats are things like: being branded negatively, e.g. as ignorant, incompetent, or disruptive; being responded to with ridicule, rejection, blame, disrespect, anger, intimidation, disregard; or, being punished e.g. with negative performance appraisals, unfavourable work assignments or reduced promotion prospects. Research has shown that the absence of such threats is strongly associated with team members bringing their whole self to work, expressing their creativity, talents and skills without self-censoring and self-silencing and learning actively on the job developing their capabilities and those of their team.
Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School and the most prominent academic researcher in this field, defines psychological safety as “the shared belief among team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”  and explains that “team psychological safety involves but goes beyond interpersonal trust; it describes a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves” . In the simplest of terms, you feel psychologically safe in your team if you feel at ease with admitting to a mistake, pointing out a mistake made by a team member, speaking about work-related matters without censoring yourself and trying out new things.
[1 Page 350 in Edmondson, A. 1999. Psychological Safety and Learning Behaviour in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44 (2): 350–383
2 Page 354 in Edmondson, A. 1999 as above]
Why is psychological safety important?
The business case for psychological safety
Described in this way, there seems to be a clear case for fostering and cultivating psychological safety in teams as a matter of employee wellbeing, welfare and job satisfaction and even a moral case on the basis of the values of employee freedom and empowerment. These should be adequate reasons for any organisation to take notice of psychological safety.
What Edmondson and others have demonstrated, however, is that there appears to also be a strong business case for promoting and cultivating psychological safety in work teams. The most widely advertised study that makes the business case for psychological safety was Project Aristotle by Google. Google’s People Analytics found that psychological safety was both the aspect most reliably shared by high performing teams (amongst a set of five traits that separated high performing teams from the others with the remaining four being structure and clarity, dependability, meaning, and impact) and also the most foundational of these traits, that is, without psychological safety, you cannot have a high-performing team. Project Aristotle as well as other studies have found that psychological safety is strongly associated with objective (e.g. sales revenue) and subjective indicators of team performance (e.g. ratings of team performance by team members and managers, customer satisfaction with team products). The strongest effect of psychological safety on team performance appears to be through its beneficial effects on team learning with studies reporting psychological safety enabling the faster adoption of new technologies (process innovation), the faster adaptation to new market circumstances and customer requirements, the early identification of potentially catastrophic risks, and the faster development of innovative products.
2.1. A closer look at psychologically safe teams
Research across different industry sectors and teams of different configurations in different countries has found that teams with psychological safety are identified and distinguished from psychologically unsafe teams on the basis of: what team members say about how they present themselves at work; what team members believe and say about their colleagues in the team; team norms and culture, i.e. the ways people treat and interact with one another, their shared beliefs and attitudes, and their routine practices; and, finally, by team capabilities.
- how people present themselves at work
In teams that are psychologically safe, team members feel comfortable to be themselves and to actively learn on the job with their colleagues. Team members do not feel they have to wear a mask at work of flawless, self-sufficient, hard-nosed professionalism which they need to constantly maintain and protect. Instead, they can show up at work without feeling that they have to hide their vulnerabilities and imperfections.
- what team members say about their their team members
In psychologically safe teams, team members express mutual respect, trust and interest in each other as people. Team members do not attack each others’ knowledge, competence, motivation, personality or character. Opinions and arguments are decoupled from the personality of the person expressing them.
- what team members say about their team’s norms and culture
Psychologically safe teams are experienced as interpersonally riskless and liberating particularly with regards to collective, shared learning and collaboration. The most diagnostic topics of whether a team feels safe or threatening are: the handling of mistakes, near misses, failures and critical incidents; whether everyone’s voice and input are encouraged, acknowledged and appreciated; whether information sharing and debate are open and not overly constrained by differences in rank, job title, seniority or other dimensions of power inequalities e.g. age, gender, race; whether dissent and difference are encouraged and appreciated; the team’s attitude to controlled risk-taking, experimentation and failure; and, giving and receiving feedback.
Psychologically safe teams protect their members’ learning efforts from the negative social responses learning behaviours and actions may be met with in different settings. Team members feel free to express themselves, ask questions, seek feedback, ask for help, critically scrutinise, discuss mistakes and everyday problems, experiment, fail in their experiments, offer dissenting views, raise difficult issues, concerns and problems, and propose ‘crazy’ ideas. They can do these things without feeling the threats of being negatively labelled, blamed, embarrassed or punished.
In more detail,
- Errors, mistakes, everyday problems and ‘niggles’, near misses, critical incidents and failures are reported and recorded honestly and transparently. The time is taken for these to be discussed openly and candidly, viewed as opportunities for learning how to prevent their recurrence by improving work systems but also as potentially protective of potentially larger and more consequential failures or errors. The team takes the time and effort to engage in ‘second order’ problem solving. ‘First order’ problem solving is the quick fixing of issues as they appear so as to stop them disrupting normal workflow. ‘Second order’ problem solving involves identifying the root causes of problems and taking action to address these rather than their signs and symptoms. The team takes ownership of mistakes instead of blaming, accusing or scapegoating individual team members. The team proactively seeks to identify errors and problems it may have missed in its processes or outputs by seeking feedback and asking for help from external stakeholders, e.g. colleagues in other teams, customers, and also by engaging in frequent experimentation and testing.
- The team protects a portion of its working time against production and efficiency pressures to engage in open, thoughtful and inclusive debate. Contributions are invited, encouraged and appreciated from all members irrespective of rank or job title. Psychologically safe teams practise free and open questioning in the sense of challenging current or established ways of working and of not accepting things as given or as being beyond careful, considered examination or critical inquiry. Teams value the critical examination of proposed plans and projects irrespective of who the originator of the proposed action is. Psychologically safe teams encourage the expression of dissenting views on work matters and harness their internal diversity and difference. Teams do not value conformity, passivity and self-censoring on work-related matters.
- The team does not shy away from constructive ‘task conflict’ or ‘creative abrasion’  i.e. “the productive disagreement over the content of one’s decisions or ideas that leads to deeper cognitive understanding of an issue” . Difficult and challenging issues are raised openly in team meetings rather than being discussed informally in corridors or around the water cooler. Members give voice to their doubts, anxieties, concerns, uncertainties and vulnerabilities. Individual, team and organisational fallibility are not taboos.
[3 Leonard, D. & Straus, S. 1997. Putting your company’s whole brain to work. Harvard Business Review. [online]. Available at https://hbr.org/1997/07/putting-your-companys-whole-brain-to-work. (Accessed 27 June 2018)
4 Edmondson, A. C. 2002. Managing the risk of learning: psychological safety in work teams. In M. West (ed.). International Handbook of Organizational Teamwork. London: Blackwell]
- The team encourages the identification and serious consideration of potential, early signs of ambiguous threats at a point where other teams might consider them as being of low priority. The team in this way tries to anticipate and fend off the possibility of catastrophic failures occurring.
- Team members share information openly and often. Information is not used as a power or status instrument.
- Team members learn on the job by experimenting, taking controlled risks and failing safely rather than in formal courses. Controlled, directed failure is not stigmatised or penalised.
- The voice of all team members is heard and acknowledged and their skills and talents are valued and utilised. The ‘person paid the most’ does not have the monopoly of speaking or the final word. Differences of rank, status or job title are toned down so as not to obstruct the contribution of all team members. Accordingly, in psychologically safe teams ‘image’ and ‘impression’ management, office politics, one-upmanship and the ‘rumour mill’ are avoided.
- Team members give feedback to one another frequently. The team frequently seeks the opinion and views of colleagues from other teams and of stakeholders external to the organisation e.g. customers and suppliers.
- Team members are comfortable asking for help from one another and colleagues in other teams.
Table 1 below offers an illustration of the distinction between psychologically safe and unsafe teams through the words of people working in teams with and without psychological safety. Table 2 contrasts the team norms of psychologically safe teams to those of unsafe teams.
2.1.1. An unconventional image of the ideal employee
Tucker and Edmondson (2003 ) argue that psychological safety allows team members to show up at work in ways that would be considered troublesome for teams with low or no psychological safety. They argue that from the perspective of teams with low psychological safety, team members who prioritise shared, collective learning over maintaining the status quo will seem like:
- self-aware error makers, when it comes to their own mistakes, informing their team and others of any mistakes and errors they have made so that the consequences can be contained and that others learn from the situation. They invite and encourage others to let them know when they have made a mistake that they have not spotted themselves.
- nosy troublemakers, when it comes to the mistakes of others, letting team members know when they have made a mistake. They communicate without accusation or blame attributions.
- noisy complainers, when it comes to issues and problems with current work processes. Problems are ‘patched’ by the team member (first-order problem solving) but they are escalated to the people who can fix their causes (second-order problem solving).
- disruptive questioners, when it comes to performance improvement. Established ways of working are routinely and frequently interrogated for ways to improve them.
[5 Tucker, A. L. & Edmondson, A. C. 2003. Why hospitals don’t learn from failures: organisational and psychological dynamics that inhibit system change. California Review of Management, 45 (2): 55–72]
Clearly, the picture of psychological safety painted in this text is idealised, without complications and difficult trade-offs and dilemmas. This was intentional as I wanted in this text to present clearly what it is that we are promised by the proponents and advocates of psychological safety. The difficulties, traps and downsides of working towards psychological safety merit their own consideration and exploration. However, given the counter-normativity of psychological safety not only in workplaces but also in other social institutions e.g. education, I thought that presenting an alternative vision of possible social relationships was worthwhile work in and by itself and a positive first step. Having said that the academic research on psychological safety suffers from severe conceptual and methodological weaknesses that are not fatal but they do need to be acknowledged and wherever possible addressed.
This work was undertaken as part of Helen Sanderson’s vision for a new world of work and care in England. For a short introduction of the endeavour Helen and her colleagues have embarked on, see this: