The History of Psychological Safety
The concept of psychological safety is as old as the first human interaction. But it’s only been in recent years that we have consolidated the concept under a unifying term. Prior to Schein and Bennis, scholars used various terms to identify psychological safety and its antecedents. In the last five years, the academic research literature on the subject has exploded. Before that, many social scientists contributed to the foundation of psychological safety.
The History of Psychological Safety
The concept of psychological safety is as old as the first human interaction. But it’s only been in recent years that we have consolidated the concept under a unifying term. Prior to Schein and Bennis, scholars used various terms to identify psychological safety and its antecedents. In the last five years, the academic research literature on the subject has exploded. Before that, many social scientists contributed to the foundation of psychological safety:
In 1844, Soren Kierkegaard identified creativity as both a generative and destructive force that produces anxiety in the person who engages in the process.
In 1942, Joseph Schumpeter identified a pattern of creative destruction where continuous innovation mutates and destroys the status quo in the process.
In 1943, Abraham Maslow identifies “belongingness needs,” stating that, “if both the physiological and the safety needs are fairly well gratified, then there will emerge the love and affection and belongingness needs.”
In 1947, Herbert Simon suggested that fully functioning organizations need “attitudes of friendliness and cooperation.”
In 1960, Douglas McGregor referred to nonphysical “security needs.”
With a strong foundation and a lot of curious people asking similar questions, the term psychological safety made its debut back in 1965.
Originally coined by Edgar H. Schein and Warren G. Bennis in their book, Personal and Organizational Change Through Group Methods: The Laboratory Approach, they defined psychological safety as a climate "which encourages provisional tries and which tolerates failure without retaliation, renunciation, or guilt." Schein and Bennis put to paper a human truth that we’ve been experiencing for centuries: People don’t want to be punished for what makes them human.
William Khan, professor of organizational behavior, reignited interest in psychological safety in 1990 with his paper Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work. He explained that in order for employees to feel engaged at work (which is a key ingredient in effective performance), they need to feel safe to express themselves authentically.
At this point, more people started to catch onto the idea. In 1999 Amy Edmonson, professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School added to these definitions of psychological safety. She described it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Edmonson’s addition brought important insight into the world of psychological safety: Psychological safety is a shared experience, and that means it’s a shared responsibility.
Even Google got on board: In 2014, Google conducted its “Project Aristotle” where the massive organization studied 180 of its own teams for a period of three years. They identified psychological safety as the defining characteristic of its most high-performing teams.
Enter Timothy R. Clark: CEO of LeaderFactor, social scientist, an expert in cultural transformation, and author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation. His framework follows a universal pattern that reflects the natural progression of human needs in social settings. 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. Clark’s work focuses on helping organizations move from theory to practice: Modeling and rewarding vulnerability is the way to build psychological safety across its four stages.
What is Psychological Safety?
Psychological safety is a culture of rewarded vulnerability that is created in four stages. This four stages 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 four stages:
Inclusion Safety: Can I Be My Authentic Self?
Can you be your authentic self on your team? Inclusion safety satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong. In this stage worth precedes worthiness. All you have to do to qualify for inclusion safety is be human and harmless. When you have inclusion safety you can bring your whole self to work. When you don’t, superiority and hierarchy dominate your company culture. Barriers are maintained and reinforced. You might be officially on a team, but you won’t feel part of the team without inclusion safety.
Learner Safety: Can I Grow?
Do you have the space to grow? Learning and growing is a fundamental need that needs to be satisfied in order for innovation to flourish in an organization. In this stage, fear is detached from mistakes, and mistakes are rewarded as part of the learning process. But to qualify for learner safety you have to engage in the learning process, it won’t happen organically. When you have learner safety in your organization learning is encouraged and celebrated. Learners are protected. When you don’t, mistakes are hidden and punished. Your team executes more than they innovate.
Contributor Safety: Can I Create Value?
Can you create value for your team? Contributor safety satisfies the basic human need to make a difference and offer meaningful contributions. When we create contributor safety for others, we empower them with autonomy, guidance, and encouragement in exchange for effort and results. When you have contributor safety in your organization your team thrives under outcome accountability. Roles are clearly defined, but people are encouraged to think outside of their roles. Small wins are celebrated. When you don’t, autonomy is given with little to no guidance, and team members may feel like benchwarmers.
Challenger Safety: Can I Be Candid About Change?
Do you feel like you can be candid about change? Challenger safety satisfies the basic human need to make things better. When we create challenger safety, we give air cover (protection) in exchange for candor. Challenger safety gives team members a voice to speak up when there is an opportunity to improve. People can disagree productively. When you don’t have challenger safety teams fall silent and people are punished for their bravery and candor.
The term psychological safety began appearing in physical safety related publications in the 1940s. See, for example, Dallas D. Dupre, Jr. & Charles. R. Sutton, “Fifth Short Course on Highway Development, The Ohio Department of High-ways and The Ohio State University,” (Columbus, Ohio): 1946. See also Joseph A. Dolan, Managing editor, Aerospace Safety, Vol. 16, No. 7., July, 1960.
Søren Kierkegaard The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin June 17, 1844 Vigilius Haufniensis, Edited and translated by Reidar Thomte Princeton University Press 1980 Kierkegaard’s Writings, VIII
Joseph Schumpeter (1994) . Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. London: Routledge. pp. 82–83.
“When a man’s physiological needs are satisfied and he is no longer fearful about his physical welfare, his social needs become important motivators of his behavior. These are such needs as those for belonging, for association, for acceptance by one’s fellows, for giving and receiving love.” Abraham H. Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Psychological Review 50 (1943): 380.
Herbert A. Simon, Administrative Behavior (New York: The Free Press, 1997), 214. (First published in 1947).
Carl R. Rogers, “The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change,” Journal of Consulting Psychology 21 (1957): 95–103. See also Carl R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person (Little Brown: New York), 1967. First published in 1961. See also Michael A. Zaccaria, Ernest C. Types, and Harry G. Lawrence, “Development Characteristics of the USAF Officer Activity Inventory,” Personnel Research Laboratory, Air Force Personnel and Training Research Center, Air Research and Development.
Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960), 37. Edgar H. Schein and Warren G. Bennis, Personal and Organizational Change Through Group Methods: The Laboratory Approach. John Wiley & Sons (New York), 1965, p. 44.
William A. Kahn, “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work,” The Academy of Management Journal 33, no. 4 (December 1990): 692–724.
Amy Edmondson, “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams,” Administrative Science Quarterly 44, no. 2 (June 1999): 350–383, http://web.mit.edu/curhan/www/docs/Articles/15341_Readings/Group_Performance/Edmondson%20Psychological%20safety.pdf. For a useful review of the psychological safety literature, see AlexanderNewman, Ross Donohue, Nathan Evans, “Psychological Safety: A Systematic Review of the Literature,” Human Resource Management Review 27, no. 3 (September 2017): 521–535,
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1053482217300013; Amy C. Edmondson and Zhike Lei, “Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct,” Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior 1 (March 2014): 23–43. Also, see findings from Aspen Institute, “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope.” http://nationathope.org/wp-content/uploads/aspen_final-report_execsumm_final_forweb.pdf