Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, first identified the concept of psychological safety in work teams in 1999. She said that psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

Psychological safety is not just a fluffy concept from management literature. It is a physiological process taking place in our brains. Understanding this is crucial to ensure we create an environment that gets the best out of people.

When you feel psychologically unsafe you:

  • Generate negative emotion,
  • Respond by fighting or fleeing, and
  • Reduce cognitive function, thus reducing your potential to contribute and learn at work.

When you feel psychologically safe you:

  • Generate positive emotion (oxytocin levels increase in the brain),
  • Respond with ideas, and
  • Increase cognitive function, encouraging new, exploratory thoughts and actions (innovation).

A psychologically dangerous environment is characterised by fear, blame and unwillingness to share ideas or resources or work together as a team. This can also lead to the Common Knowledge Effect, where everyone thinks alike because dominant thinking is never challenged. In such environments, innovation struggles to exist.

Signs of psychological danger in your team:

  1. Admitting you are wrong or made a mistake is avoided at all costs as it can have a disastrous effect on how others perceive you.
  2. It is not acceptable to challenge your leader or team members on their ideas.
  3. Blame is more important than treating failure as a learning experience.
  4. Your team members do not ask a lot of questions during team meetings.
  5. Your team avoids difficult conversations and controversial topics.
  6. You, or other team leaders, tend to dominate discussions.
  7. Feedback is not given or requested often.
  8. Team members do not often ask for one another’s support when they need it.
  9. Your team does not know one another personally, just professionally.

Kathleen O’Connor, a professor from Cornell University who coaches teams on effective collaboration, stated that when there is a lack of psychological safety in a team, the knowledge and expertise that each employee was hired to bring to the table is lost. The team will have trouble capitalising on the variety of knowledge and expertise in the team. This often leads to poor performance, poor decision-making and missed opportunities for innovation.

Creating psychologically safe and empowered work environments depends on leaders at all levels learning and demonstrating leadership behaviours that help their employees thrive.

To know how to increase the psychological safety in your team, read the article: Reaping the benefits of psychological safety.

By Ilana Bisschoff


Enjoyed our thinking?
Get in touch to understand how we can support you.