Related Resources

Psychological Safety: Defining the Concept

Psychological safety books are few and far between, so it can be difficult to determine what psychological safety is, what it isn’t, and how it works. We know you want to get right into it. But before we tell you what psychological safety is, let’s get on the same page about what it isn’t. It’s not a nebulous concept to be discussed only by academics. It’s not a forced ideology, a trend, or a box to check. It’s definitely not compliance. It isn’t an escape from accountability, an excuse to be permissive, or an awkward, forced smile. It’s not just kindness, it’s more than diversity, and it’s bigger than corporate.

The benefits of psychological safety are far-reaching, and the topic has unique workplace dividends. The psychological safety definition we use here at LeaderFactor is “a culture of rewarded vulnerability.” In essence, this means that psychological safety is primarily built and nurtured through individual interactions in an organization. When team members feel safe to be themselves, make mistakes, take responsibility, and encourage change. 

Once you and your teams have a shared knowledge of what psychological safety is, including its definition, it will be much easier to adopt a shared vision. You’ll be able to work together towards common goals of great culture organization-wide. Your people will have a solid foundation to lean on and reference as you intentionally model and reward acts of vulnerability. They’ll know specifically what to do to show up for each other.

Psychological Safety Synonym

In the workplace, one psychological safety synonym could be “trust.” Sure, psychological safety is a nuanced way to explain the trust that teammates feel as they collaborate, ideate, and deliberate, but at the end of the day, it’s a framework to ensure that you have consistent trust in your teams. Trust, coupled with consistency, is what creates a psychologically safe environment (culture) where people can contribute meaningfully and authentically. Once members of your team are confident that they belong and feel safe to make mistakes, create value, and be candid about change, that trust will spread to all other aspects of work life. 

You can increase psychological safety on your teams by engaging in these psychological safety exercises. Help your people feel:

Safe to Not Know

Nobody can be expected to know everything, yet we often hold ourselves (and others) to that standard. Alleviate the pressure of these threats by establishing a culture of learning where your colleagues feel safe to admit that they don’t yet know, but are willing to find out.

Safe to Need More

Your team members need to know that they can ask for what they need (whether that be more time, better equipment, better training, or more space) without fear of being ignored or being demoted for being “needy.” Regardless of whether or not you can fulfill their every need (because we get it, budgets exist), a culture of psychological safety will help you support your team members. 

Safe to Question

Leaders don’t accidentally build a speak-up culture. An intentional culture of psychological safety will build your team’s confidence that their voice matters, even if their voice goes against the grain of what’s currently being done.

Safe to Explore

In a culture with high levels of psychological safety, exploration won’t be treated as a waste of time. In fact, teams will know that they have the space to try new things without fear of punishment, greater restrictions, or losing future resources.

Safe to Fail

The faster you can get mistakes out in the open, the faster they can be a valuable asset to your team.  It feels different to work in a space that celebrates learning and expects that mistakes will occur naturally in any innovative environment. Rewarding mistakes in your organization is a refreshing way to set yourself apart from your competition.

What is Psychological Safety at Work

As we said in the introduction, the benefits of psychological safety at work are deep and permanent. If you can create a culture of psychological safety that sticks, you’re more likely to retain your top talent, encourage discretionary effort, innovate, and rebound from mistakes quickly. A lack of psychological safety in the workplace is just the opposite. Work without psychological safety is monotonous, silent, scary, and toxic.

So what is psychological safety at work? In 2014 Google conducted their Project Aristotle psychological safety case study, where they determined that psychological safety was the #1 most important indicator of team performance. This means that it needs to be built at the team level. Psychological safety at work is a series of behaviors that encourage authentic collaboration, quick recovery from mistakes, discretionary effort, and authentic interaction. 

Why is Psychological Safety Important

Leaders and employees everywhere are starting to ask, “why is psychological safety important?” You should know that psychological safety is the foundation of great culture. It enables all other initiatives, values, and missions to succeed because it builds supported employee culture. When employees can come to work and know that their social and emotional needs will be met, they’re more willing to be their full selves at work. People who are authentic at work do authentic work, and that work is innovative, revolutionary, and worth the effort.

Psychological Safety Framework

Timothy R. Clark’s psychological safety framework, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, gives further detail to the definition of psychological safety. Now, not only is psychological safety a culture of rewarded vulnerability, but it also consists of four distinct and separate stages that can be identified, measured, and improved. 

Clark’s psychological safety model starts with (1) inclusion safety. Team members need to feel safe to be their authentic selves on their teams. Next is (2) learner safety. Teams need to feel like they can learn and make mistakes without fear of punishment or harm. Contributor safety (3) satisfies our need to create value and work autonomously. Challenger safety, the fourth and culminating stage, empowers employees with a voice to challenge the status quo and be candid about change. 

Use these psychological safety questions to assess your personal impact on psychological safety:

1. Your presence has an impact on the tone and tenor of a meeting. When you enter a room, does your influence warm or chill the air?

2. When you collaborate with your peers, does your influence accelerate or decelerate the speed of discovery and innovation?

3. Fear breaks the feedback loop. If there’s pervasive fear, people filter or withhold feedback. Does your influence increase or restrict the flow of feedback?

4. Telling has a tendency to shut people down, while asking has tendency to draw people out. Does your influence draw people out or shut them down?

5. Dissent is critical to making good decisions by thinking carefully about different potential courses of action. Do you encourage and reward dissent or discourage and punish dissent?

6. Mistakes are clinical material for learning and progress. Do you celebrate mistakes and the lessons learned or overreact and marginalize those who make them?

7. No one likes to hear the unvarnished truth when it's unflattering. And yet we need to hear it or suffer the consequences of willful blindness. Can people tell you what you don’t want to hear when you don’t want to hear it?

How to Create Psychological Safety

How to Create Psychological Safety as a Leader

As a leader, you’re primarily responsible for the culture of your organization. If you’re still wondering how to promote psychological safety on your teams, don’t stress. We’d recommend a psychological safety training, like an executive session, to kick off your efforts. Once you get your executive suite on board, the concepts will quickly become norms in your organization.

How to Create Psychological Safety at Work

Learning how to create psychological safety starts with introspection. You need to know what’s vulnerable for you so you can start recognizing the acts of vulnerability you encounter in the workplace. Once you know what it looks like for you, you can start identifying patterns in your colleagues. Reward their vulnerable behavior and keep modeling vulnerability yourself. 

How to Create Psychological Safety in Virtual Teams

The social dynamics of virtual teams present unique challenges when creating psychological safety. Luckily, most of the examples of psychological safety at work that we suggest on our website and platform work both in-person or virtually. It may require more intentional effort to reach meaningful connections, but psychological safety is totally possible on virtual teams. 

Psychological Safety Examples

These examples of psychological safety at work should encourage you to start thinking about a psychological safety initiative on your teams. When we’re talking about psychological safety, we’re talking about:

Teams that are high-performing, inclusive, and innovative. Psychological safety enables innovation through inclusion and diversity.

An organization with no hidden problems or pockets of toxicity. Once you start measuring psychological safety you’ll clearly see where your cultural problems start, and you’ll even know how to begin to fix them.

Team members who are committed to, not compliant with, your culture. When your teams understand how they fit into your organization’s culture, they’ll be more willing to be active participants in it.

A place where everyone has a voice, and everyone is listened to. Challenger safety creates a safe place where everyone on the team has participation rights. Their voice is heard and valued just as much as anyone else’s.

Employees that exceed expectations and improve without coaxing. Psychological safety unlocks the discretionary effort of your team members. When they can contribute autonomously, they’ll likely improve autonomously too.

Applications pouring in while top talent never wants to leave. It’s much easier to convince your top talent to stay when the culture is built for them to thrive.

These psychological safety examples are only a few of the many benefits of approaching culture by design, instead of by default. Psychological safety will transform your organization and empower your team members to be inclusive and innovative in their everyday interactions. 

More Articles