What Is Psychological Safety, Really?

HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership – case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you.

You’re probably familiar with the term “psychological safety.” But do you know what it really means?

HBR contributing editor and workplace conflict expert Amy Gallo says both the idea and the value of psychological safety are commonly misunderstood. 

In this episode, you’ll learn how to define psychological safety, how to tell whether your team has it, and what to do if you don’t. 

This episode originally aired as part of the HBR Guide video series in November 2023. Here it is.

AMY GALLO: No team is perfect. And everyone makes mistakes. But what happens on your team when a project doesn’t go as planned, you miss your quarterly targets, or an idea for a new initiative just doesn’t get traction? Do people try to hide their missteps? Or do they openly admit them? Does it devolve into a blame game of who’s most at fault? Or do you focus on what you can learn from failure? Do people even feel comfortable taking risks in the first place?

In this video, we’ll focus on team psychological safety. You’ll learn why it’s so important and how to foster it so you, your team, and your organization can perform at your best. And I’ll share some tips for how managers can build it on their own teams.

First, a definition. Harvard Business School professor and author Amy Edmondson coined the phrase “team psychological safety.” In a nutshell, it’s the shared belief that it’s OK to take risks, express ideas and concerns, speak up with questions, and admit mistakes– and here’s the important part– without fear of negative consequences.

But make no mistake. This is not just about being nice, polite, or making people feel comfortable, quite the contrary. Admitting to or pointing out mistakes is usually pretty uncomfortable. It’s risky and can make people feel exposed, which is why it’s important to create an environment where you feel safe and confident that it won’t be held against you.

For example, imagine your team has a project that is not going well and you have to deliver the bad news to your boss. What kind of response do you anticipate? If you have a boss who is going to be angry and demand whose fault is this, what is wrong with your team, you’re not likely to want to share mistakes or even take risks in the future.

By contrast, maybe you have a boss who says, OK, so the project didn’t go as you planned. What did you learn? That makes a big difference, right? The best managers know learning is key to performing better in the future. And taking risks is essential for learning. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Why is psychological safety so important? The short answer is teams with higher psychological safety simply perform better. Edmonson’s and others’ research shows that on teams where people feel that they’re able to speak up without fear of retribution, they are more likely to be engaged and motivated, leading to a whole host of other benefits like people feel that their contributions actually matter so they contribute more.

More contributions means diverse perspectives are considered, leading to better decision making. Eventually, you establish a culture of continuous learning and improvement because people feel comfortable sharing mistakes and speaking up, which then leads to greater innovation, creativity, and resilience.

On teams without psychological safety, employee well-being suffers, resulting in stress, burnout, and turnover. You can see how these issues will impact team and organizational performance. Spoiler alert. It’s not good. So now you might be thinking, how do I know if my team has it?

Edmondson developed this straightforward seven-item questionnaire to assess the degree to which your team members feel psychologically safe. It includes seven questions that team members rate on a scale of 1 to 5.

1, if I make a mistake on this team, it is not held against me. 2, members of my team are able to bring up problems and tough issues. 3, people on my team sometimes accept others for being different. 4, it is safe to take a risk on this team. 5, it isn’t difficult to ask other members of this team for help. 6, no one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts. 7, working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

There is no definitive score with these questions. The goal is to use a survey like this one to reflect on your team’s experience and be curious about what you could change to improve that experience. You can find out more by going to Amy Edmondson’s website.

Edmondson will be the first to say there is no magic wand you can wave to create psychological safety with your team. That said, there are good management practices that will go a long way in helping to create a more psychologically safe climate.

First, establish clear norms and expectations. Predictability is key to psychological safety. If employees have the expectation that they will be treated fairly and feel supported, they’ll probably feel more comfortable sharing candid opinions and ideas.

Next, make it clear why employees’ voices matter. The default for a lot of people is to keep their ideas to themselves. It’s much safer and easier that way. Edmondson urges managers to override that instinct by clearly stating why you need to hear from them and why their viewpoint and input matters. Open communication is essential. So, get specific. And let them know how hearing their ideas might affect work outcomes.

Also important, admit your own fallibility. Leading by example is key. Normalize vulnerability and humility by admitting mistakes and showing what you’ve learned from them. By modeling how to be respectful, open to feedback, and willing to take risks, you’ll pave the way for others to follow suit.

And actively invite input. Even if you’re modeling the right behavior, you can’t assume team members will tell you what they’re thinking. Edmondson says you need to explicitly request their input by asking open-ended questions like, what are you seeing? What are your thoughts on this? Where do you stand on this idea?

And, finally, respond productively. Just saying you want people’s input is not enough. When they speak up with a kooky idea or tough feedback, your response really matters. If they feel blamed, embarrassed, or shut down, there’s a good chance they won’t take that risk again. But if you are appreciative and curious, asking good questions that show you’re open minded, you’ll boost the chances they’ll feel safe to keep sharing feedback in the future.

Team psychological safety means a team knows that it’s OK to take risks, express ideas and concerns, ask questions, and admit mistakes. Knowing they can do so without negative consequences means the team can continuously learn and improve, which is essential to future success.

Thanks for watching. All of these strategies are based on HBR articles which are linked in the description below. Do you have any strategies for cultivating psychological safety on your team? Or do you have other big topics you’d like me to cover? Comment below. Bye for now.

HANNAH BATES: That was HBR contributing editor Amy Gallo on the HBR Guide video series. Gallo is an expert in workplace conflict and communication – and she co-hosts another excellent HBR podcast, Women at Work. Her most recent book is Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People).

We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review.

When you’re ready for more podcasts, articles, case studies, books, and videos with the world’s top business and management experts, find it all at HBR.org.

This episode was produced by Amy Gallo, Megan Reilly, Scott LaPierre, Jessica Gidal, Anne Saini, and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Video by Dave Di Iulio and Elie Honein. Design by Alex Belser and Karen Player. Music by Coma Media. And special thanks to Maureen Hoch, Nicole Smith, Erica Truxler, Ramsey Khabbaz, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener.

See you next week.

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