Feeling Safe?

Norway Lemming: Abisko National Park. David Mintz.

Kahn’s research in the 1990’s suggests there are three conditions that need to be met before we will reveal our true selves in a work situation. Is this task meaningful? Is it safe? Am I available or do I have the resources? I’ve been reading about psychological safety this week for my research on factors affecting team work.

Psychological safety can be described as the experience of being able to reveal one’s true self without fear of negative consequences and thus to use all personal energies to achieve a particular task or challenge. How might that work in a group setting? Kahn’s field research found that situations promoting safety were predictable, consistent and non-threatening. That might seem unattainable if you consider a modern business context as a whole but if you think about team behaviour it’s more achievable. There is a certain predictability if consequences for behaviours are clear, and if the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour is consistently reinforced through positive role modelling and feedback. Relationships that are supportive and trusting, which allow a free exchange of ideas and chances to take risks without fear of failure could be perceived as non threatening.

Feelings of safety come from emotional reactions, personal experiences and the context, and those shared belief systems about safety are often tacit and taken for granted. Research has described these beliefs as respect, being interested in each other as people, not being rejected for who you are or what you think and believing in positive intentions. In practice, this might be about seeking and giving feedback, changing and improving practice, obtaining or providing help and expertise, experimenting and fostering constructive conflict (Edmondson, 1999). Safety is characterised by caring about others in a group, by respecting their competence, and establishing mutual trust.

So what are the benefits of a safe team environment? Edmondson suggests group learning behaviours can be improved: for example, sharing feedback, sharing information, asking for help, experimenting and making mistakes which will improve collective understanding and performance. Without group safety, learning behaviour suffers. Safety is also critical for good decision making as it encourages discussion from different perspectives and avoids “group think”. And also let’s not forget positive impacts on employee engagement and well being.

So how can we create or improve a “safe” team climate ? Thinking about the contribution of our own behaviours and beliefs is probably a good place to start. Whether we are leaders or team members, it is worth reflecting on how much we seek or give constructive feedback — and remember that can be praise too!, or how often we offer help, support or expertise to others, or how interested we are in different perspectives in group discussions or how frequently we share useful information. Our own behaviours are important indicators to others about our beliefs and values and might lead us to be perceived as trustworthy, which is an aspect of team climate that can be built upon to create a safer environment.

This links quite neatly to Mayer et al.’s model of interpersonal trust which suggests that being seen as trustworthy will engender trust. Research finds that behaviours have a greater impact than both individuals’ tendencies to trust and the context, on a decision to trust another (Heyns and Rothman, 2015). By demonstrating the skill and ability to influence situations, by striking a balance between caring for both individuals and the organisation and by operating with integrity in alignment with personal values or principles, we can encourage others to trust us. So perhaps behaving in a trustworthy way is a good start ?

If you are interested in participating in some online research about factors that affect team work, please follow this link . Responses are completely confidential and take about 10 minutes. I would much appreciate any contributions up until August 2017 — thank you!

Are you interested in team diversity and organisational stories? Please take part in my research.You will be involved in a short collaborative and creative story writing/ drawing task about your organisation. Please get in touch if your team (4–7 people) would like to participate or would like further information until August 2017. I can be contacted through LinkedIn or on helen.brown88@outlook.com Thank you !


Bradley, B.H.,Postlethwaite, B.E., Klotz, A.C.,Hamdani, M.R. & Brown, K.G. (2012) ‘Reaping the Benefits of Task Conflict in Teams: The Critical Role of Team Psychological Safety Climate’ Journal of Applied Psychology Vol. 97, N. 1, 151–158.

Edmondson, A. (1999) ‘Psychological Safety and Learning Behaviour in Work Teams’ Administrative Science Quarterly 44 350–383.

Heyns, M., & Rothmann, S. (2015). ‘Dimensionality of trust: An analysis of the relations between propensity, trustworthiness and trust’ SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 41(1).

Kahn, W.A. ( 1990) ‘Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work’ Academy of Management Journal; 33, 4; p. 692.

Mayer, R.C., Davis, J.H., & Schoorman, F.D. (1995) ‘An integrative model of organizational trust’ Academy of Management Review, 20, 709–734.

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