Psychological Safety at Work

December 4, 2023

Why is Psychological Safety at Work Important?

Chances are, you’re here for one of two reasons: you don’t know if you have psychological safety on your team, or you’re pretty positive you don’t. Turns out, it’s not a concept that stays locked in your office supply closet and pulled out during damage control. And it’s definitely not just a theoretical concept meant for academic debate. It’s an integral part of your everyday life.

While psychological safety research is a fairly new field of study, social scientists have been studying its effects under a variety of terms for decades. We have learned from the work that Google did with its Project Aristotle and Amy Edmondson's notable contributions to the world of teams and organizational learning, to Soren Kierkegaard, Abraham Maslow, Douglas McGregor, and William Khan, among others. We're finding that the importance of psychological safety in the workplace can't be ignored.

What is Psychological Safety?

We have two answers to that question. The short answer: it’s a culture of rewarded vulnerability. If you want to learn more about what that means, you can watch a webinar or listen to a podcast that talk all about it.

The long answer: it’s a culture that fulfills people’s fundamental needs to feel included, to learn, to create value, and to make things better.

See? That definition is kind of a mouthful. What we mean is that psychological safety occurs in stages. Four of them, to be exact: 

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety™ are a function of respect and permission.

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety™ framework acknowledges that we’re humans first and employees second. The framework follows a universal pattern that reflects the natural progression of human needs in social settings. These needs exist across demographics, psychographics, nations, and cultures. 

Just like humans need water, food, and shelter to survive, teams that want to innovate need four things in order to thrive: they need to feel included and safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo. Teams progress through these stages as they intentionally create cultures of rewarded vulnerability across The 4 Stages™: 

Importance of Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Psychological safety is where great culture starts. But what makes a culture “great?” We’re not talking about perks and parties. We’re talking about:

  • Teams that are high-performing, inclusive, and innovative.
  • An organization with no hidden problems or pockets of toxicity
  • Team members that are committed to, not compliant with, your culture.
  • A place where everyone has a voice, and everyone is listened to.
  • Employees that exceed expectations and improve without coaxing.
  • Applications pouring in while top talent never wants to leave. 
  • A place where high levels of accountability drive success. 

As the foundation of culture, psychological safety will transform your organization and empower your team members to be inclusive and innovative in their everyday interactions. But psychological safety, just like culture, is delicate and dynamic. It’s perishable, not permanent. It requires intention too. 

Because unfortunately, psychological safety doesn’t just happen, so it can’t be a one-and-done initiative or a back-burner idea. It should be at the forefront of your strategy. It has to be monitored and measured. It has to be planned out, revisited, and consistently improved.

If you're looking for a good place to start, we've compiled more psychological safety exercises and psychological safety examples into one free, 30-page pdf.

How to Promote Psychological Safety

To understand what psychological safety looks like on dynamic teams in vastly different environments and contexts, let's show you some examples of lack of psychological safety on your teams.

Psychologically Unsafe Work Environment Examples

1. You’re organized into teams, but no teamwork happens.

This is more common than you’d think. You can’t expect people to be team players if they don’t know that they’re included, accepted, valued, and needed on their team. As humans we have a fundamental need to connect and belong. Without those connection points we won’t feel safe, let alone motivated, to work with others in vulnerable ways.

2. People avoid being authentic at work, or avoid interaction in general.

If we think that our authentic, vulnerable, human selves aren’t allowed at work, we’ll put on a mask when we walk in the door. We’ll keep our heads down, do our job, get in, and get out. At that point we become ghosts in cubicles instead of humans at work.

3. You’re so afraid of making a mistake that you avoid doing anything new and different.

When mistakes and failure are consistently punished we focus our energy on avoiding harm, not trying new things. Innovation comes at the expense of time, resources, and brain power. The question is, does your organization value innovation over execution? Is it willing to spend a little time in failure for boundary-pushing results? 

4. You aren’t given the time or space to learn new things.

Humans have a fundamental need to learn and grow. Most organizations expect team members to learn on their own time, or, even worse, expect them to know everything without experiencing a learning curve first. Aggressive learners need to be nurtured, not suffocated. An organization that lacks psychological safety will pretend like learning isn’t needed, wanted, or valued.

5. Superiority and hierarchy dictate who participates, who contributes, and who doesn’t. 

Organizations that are so enthralled with titles, positions and authority that they neglect ideas, insights and perspectives from others lack psychological safety. Bias, whether conscious or unconscious, often determines who is allowed to create value in an organization, and who isn’t. 

6. There’s an imbalance between autonomy and accountability.

If your teams want autonomy, they have to learn to love accountability. Unearned autonomy with no accountability can lead to disorder, discomfort, and dissatisfying results. On the other hand, too much accountability with no autonomy can lead to micromanaging, hand-holding, and paternalism. 

7. Your ideas and opinions are ignored when they go against the grain of company noms.

When was the last time you challenged the status quo in your organization? Are questions welcome on your team? Organizations without psychological safety might claim they have a speak-up culture, but if ideas are unwelcome, unacknowledged, or kept in a suggestion box, the levels of psychological safety there are extremely low. 

8. Disagreements get so heated that they aren’t productive.

Organizations with high levels of psychological safety know how to disagree productively. Without psychological safety, disagreements get no farther than opinions, insults, and the stubborn need to be right. 

If you're looking for some more examples of psychological safety at work, download our Psychological Safety Behavioral Guide. We've gathered over 120 concrete behaviors for you to try on your teams and within your circles of influence.

Psychological Safety Survey

If you haven’t made an intentional effort to shape (or measure) your company culture, you’re probably embracing your default culture. Default cultures aren’t actively inclusive or innovative, they have hidden problems, and they detract from your bottom line. If you have a default culture, you won’t compete in highly dynamic markets. You’ll have contagious toxicity, and you won’t know why. Your employees will remain unengaged until they’re so unhappy that they walk out the door. Yikes. You can’t improve your workplace culture until you know where you are. So, how do you measure psychological safety? We recommend a psychological safety survey.

High levels of psychological safety (blue zones) bring out the best in individuals and teams. Low levels of psychological safety (red zones) reduce productivity, suffocate innovation, and kill culture.

Measure Teams, Roll Results Up Organization-Wide

Research has shown that psychological safety is, first and foremost, a team dynamic. This means your data will be the most helpful, practical, and actionable when it’s segmented by individual teams (both intact and cross–functional). Without the team focus you may have a general sense of how your organization is doing, but you won’t know where those pockets of toxicity are, who needs help, or what to do next.  

Isolate it From Employee Engagement

Some engagement surveys may include a question or two about psychological safety, but these questions are typically too general to warrant any actionable results. Do your colleagues have a strong understanding of what psychological safety is and what it looks like? If not, a question like, “do you feel psychologically safe in your organization?” will get you nowhere. 

Blend Quantitative Data With Qualitative Data

Numbers are loud. Words are louder. Because psychological safety and employee culture are so uniquely tied to team dynamics, asking your team members to put words to their responses will help you pinpoint what they need moving forward. 

If you want to approach your organizational culture by design, instead of by default, you should start with a foundation of psychological safety. It’s psychological safety that will allow all other culture changes and initiatives to stick, spread, and stay on any team, in any organization. But how do you build a culture of rewarded vulnerability in complex, dynamic organizations with thousands of employees? How do you increase psychological safety in cross-functional teams? What about intact ones? 

We thought you’d never ask.

multiple covers of the behavior guide next to each other

Download 120+ Behaviors to Practice Psychological Safety

If psychological safety is the #1 variable in team performance, how do you improve it? This is a good place to start. With 120+ practical, specific behaviors, the Behavioral Guide will help you know what to start, what to stop, and how to infuse healthy interaction into your work life. It's the companion to The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety Book. Download it today.

Download the Guide