Why is Psychological Safety being ignored?

John Dobbin
Nov 4, 2018 · 4 min read
El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) — Laocoön

In one of the most extensive business research projects ever conducted, Project Aristotle, Google found, to their surprise, that the number one driver of team performance is psychological safety.

This is a gift on a plate to organisations. Want to radically improve your performance? Then simply make psychological safety a priority.

The response … crickets. My partner in Organisational Misbehaviour, Dr Richard Calydon, and I talk to many organisations about this subject. We expect it to be top of most senior executive’s agendas. But, alas, it is not. Nowhere near it. Following are some of the reasons why, in no particular order.

Little or no Understanding of Psychological Safety

Many executives simply don’t know about it. They haven’t read Laura Delizonna’s article in Harvard Business Review, they haven’t seen Amy Edmondson’s TED Salon talk on it, they missed the New York times special feature, and they haven’t read Google’s guidebooks on team effectiveness or any number of other articles on psychological safety. Ignorance is bliss; but not an excuse.

It’s Misperceived and Misunderstood

A number of articles have confused psychological safety with safe spaces and low accountability. Safe spaces are places in which you go if you do not want to be confronted by ideas and opinions that are offensive to you. In psychologically safe environments, you need to speak up. Although Amy Edmondson does identify a high psychological safety / low accountability environment (she calls it the comfort zone), she makes clear that psychological safety works in parallel with accountability. If there’s high psychological safety and high accountability, it’s a learning zone. By the way, low psychological safety and high accountability? That’s the anxiety zone.

“It’s a fad”

Fads come and go all the time in business, and one should remain healthily skeptical. However the depth of Project Aristotle’s research can not be ignored: 2 years, 180 teams, double-blind interviews, and over 35 statistical models analyzing hundreds of variables. The data and the insights can not be ignored by anyone who is serious about business performance.

“It’s not for us”

Could be true. Amy Edmondson states that high psychological safety is only important in landscapes of uncertainty and interdependency. For work which is straight-forward and can be done without relying on others then business as usual is fine. Or even better, replaceable by an AI.

Senior people don’t want this spotlight on them

Quote from the HR department of a listed company about running a workshop on psychological safety: “We can’t put this forward. There are people at the top that will feel extremely threatened by this”. So a public company can not partake in profit-generating skill development because it may expose the toxicity of senior executives. Herein lies a systemic problem. To paraphrase, “we know we are doing a bad thing but we don’t want to look at it, don’t want to expose it, and don’t want to treat it.” It is not just one organisation saying this, we get variations of the same sentiment a lot. An awful lot.

This is a board-level problem. Simply put, if a CEO is not committed to developing a company-wide competence that will very likely improve organisational performance, then one that does should be found.

Superficial treatment

“7 (or 10, or 14) ways to create psychological safety in the workplace”, posted on the intranet, is not a solution. Organisations that have normalised toxicity have to reverse it. It will take time. It will require dedication and perseverance. It will produce casualties. But it will definately produce results.

Inculcating psychological safety has a raft of obvious benefits:

  • People, whom companies spend a fortune on for their skills and experience, will actually contribute to collective intelligence

How to get started:

  1. Understand what it is and how to foster it. Read up. Go to courses.


Delizonna, L, 2107, ‘High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It’, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it

Duhigg, C, 2016, ‘What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team’, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html?smid=pl-share

Edmonson, A, 2018, ‘How to Turn a Group of Strangers into a Team’, TED, https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_edmondson_how_to_turn_a_group_of_strangers_into_a_team

Edmondson, A, 2018, ‘The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth’, Wiley, https://www.wiley.com/en-au/The+Fearless+Organization:+Creating+Psychological+Safety+in+the+Workplace+for+Learning,+Innovation,+and+Growth-p-9781119477266

Google, ‘Guide: Understand team effectiveness’; Google Re:Work, https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/

This article was originally published in LinkedIn Pulse. For more information on psychological safety and related topics, or to find out about our global masterclasses, please visit The Organisational Misbehaviourists.

Thinking Digitally

Thoughts on emerging opportunities

John Dobbin

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Driving Digital Transformation — the use of technology to radically improve the performance of organisations // @JohnDobbin

Thinking Digitally

Thoughts on emerging opportunities

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