Psychological Safety and Why You Hold The Key to Innovation and Growth (Part 1)

This is the first part of a three-part series on Psychological Safety, Innovation, and Growth. Part one will address the fundamental question of What is Psychological Safety? and the dangers of overlooking it. Part two will look at how Psychological Safety is central to growth and innovation in tech. Part three will outline the practical steps leaders can take to nurture Psychological Safety on their teams.

Visuals by Agnes Johansson.

ow more than ever, for organizations that want to be innovative and grow fast, it is crucial for employees to feel comfortable asking for help, challenging assumptions, taking risks, and generally working without fear of negative consequences. Hybrid work offers an opportunity to benefit from a more diverse workforce and to innovate more quickly than ever by being more inclusive and more adaptable. Creating a culture of psychological safety is the real key to unlocking this hidden potential, but research suggests that many leaders are not doing enough.

As a leader, you have the ability to create an environment that fosters growth and innovation through psychological safety. Research conducted by McKinsey & Company has shown that cultivating a climate of psychological safety requires the buy-in of all team members and constant maintenance for it to fully work. They also point out that team leaders possess the strongest influence and can help set the tone for the rest of the team. But the disappointing finding was that a majority of employees don’t feel their leaders are doing enough to take the initiative… and now is the time to step up.

What is Psychological Safety?

The importance of psychological safety in organizations has been highlighted recently by the likes of Google’s 2014 Project Aristotle, and the experience of the pandemic has again brought the concept back to the surface in the minds of many leaders. A pioneering project in tech that has had a long legacy, Project Aristotle found that there are “five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google.” These were:

  • Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  • Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high-quality work on time?
  • Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  • Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  • Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

That arguably the most successful tech company in the 21st century — and the organizational gold standard to which many other tech companies aspire — puts psychological safety at the top of their list of key team dynamics should make leaders sit up and take note.

But this isn’t a new idea, however, it was first proposed by Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis in 1965 when they wrote that, “in order for (discomfort) to lead to an increased desire to learn rather than to a heightened anxiety… An environment must be created with maximum psychological safety.” Schein and Bennis defined the term as a group phenomenon that reduces interpersonal risk. Collapsing the sense of fear around one’s position in a group and reducing the anxiety that often comes with teamwork, they found, makes for much more productive and collaborative outcomes that lead to both personal and organizational growth.

Psychological safety isn’t just about making work a more pleasant and less stressful place to be (although, that is a big part of it). Getting psychological safety right is a means to improving productivity and promoting personal growth among employees, and promoting a culture of innovation at an organizational level.

Nurturing psychological safety in your own team is simple to spell out, but tricky to implement in practice. But, put simply, there are two key practices that lead to a place of psychological safety for teams:

  1. A clear team structure where members understand their role on the team
  2. Strong bonds between team members

The dangers of overlooking psychological safety

There are two negative zones your company can sit within if you don’t get psychological safety just right. In the Apathy Zone, low standards and low psychological safety mean that your company lacks innovation (or even particularly good work) and is incapable of satisfying employees. Productivity is low in the Apathy Zone and employee turnover is high, especially since employees can find a better environment with more exciting challenges elsewhere. To stay in this zone is detrimental to the health of the organization.

In the Anxiety Zone, you might get some results in terms of productivity and innovation that you miss out on in the Apathy Zone. But this is limited by the stress or even fear employees experience in an environment of low psychological safety. A fear of making mistakes limits the potential for innovation and, again, turnover will be high due to the high-stress levels. To stay in this zone is detrimental to the health of individual employees, and only works for the organization in the short term.

Leaders who have little concern for the experience of their employees and see satisfaction (and psychological safety as the responsibility of the individual, rather than the responsibility of the organization) need not look too far to understand the potentially catastrophic consequences of operating in the Anxiety Zone. We have all experienced — and are still experiencing — one of the most disruptive and tragic events in recent memory with the Covid-19 pandemic. A situation that occurred precisely because of an organizational structure that had extremely low psychological safety. Because of a climate of heightened interpersonal and professional risk, the potential discovery of a new coronavirus went unreported and covered up until it was too late and the situation became too dire to ignore. This is the ultimate, extreme lesson in the potential consequences of operating in the Anxiety Zone.

So now we understand what psychological safety is and the dangers of overlooking it. We discovered the importance of combining high psychological safety with high standards when we want to encourage learning, growth, and innovation in our teams. In the next part of this series, we will take a deep dive into using psychological safety to facilitate growth and innovation. You can find that part here.



CEO & Co-Founder of Mentimeter, an audience engagement platform and Sweden’s fastest growing startup.

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Johnny Warström

CEO & Co-Founder of Mentimeter, an audience engagement platform and Sweden’s fastest growing startup.