Psychological Safety: Why it Matters in the Workplace

Psychological Safety

Why It Matters in the Workplace

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is a term first coined by Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor and author of The Fearless Organization. Amy defines psychological safety as a shared belief held by members of a team that it is ok for anyone to take risks, express their ideas, raise concerns, ask questions, and admit mistakes – without fear of negative consequences.

Why do we, as organisations, want safe conversations? 

We want individuals and groups who are free to speak up and raise concerns when everyone else is silent. We want to avoid groupthink and ‘yes’ people who go along with the loud majority. 

To support an environment where we’re leading and driving innovation, we must operate in a way where we look out for each other within our teams. While failures must be seen for what they are, failures are also opportunities to learn and improve, and not merely disasters to be chastised for. To be one-dimensional in our approach to failure may, ultimately, result in a sustained erasure of curiosity.

Leading the development of national policy to improve work health and safety, Safe Work Australia published new information in February 2024 identifying trends in psychological safety in workplaces. The Psychological health and safety in the workplace report highlights the changing impact of work-related psychological injuries in Australia. 

The report shared that during 2021-22, mental health conditions accounted for 9% of all serious workers’ compensation claims, a 36.9% increase since 2017-18. It was also reported that workers with claims for mental health conditions experienced poorer return-to-work outcomes and were more likely to experience stigma from colleagues and their employers.

What does the lack of psychological safety create?

Scenario 1: Jane feels physically ill at the thought of reporting back to her manager, Michael, on a botched project they both have been working on over the last 18 months.

Scenario 2: Mei Lee, who is in a massive business transformation project at a large local telco gets regularly taunted for being a “goody two-shoes”. She notices something amiss in one of the company’s products due to a few skipped processes, one of which is a regulatory requirement. She knows that mostly everyone has noticed it too but that they are fine to let it pass. She is anxious and not sleeping well but unclear how to move ahead. No one is saying anything but then, why should she? Does anyone even want to hear what she has to say?

“It’s the way it has always been done. What do you know anyway?”
“It’s how we do things here, and that’s that.”
“Leave it well alone.”

If we keep accepting arguments like these above, how do we progress? How do we ensure that everyone feels safe, welcomed, and included? How do we ensure that everyone’s voice is heard?

This is not just about progress and innovation. 

In certain situations, how do we avoid catastrophic disasters and grave harm to individuals or communities? Take the Titan submersible disaster, as an example, where two former OceanGate employees separately voiced safety concerns but found their voices dismissed.

How do you know if psychological safety exists in your team and organisation?

It’s fairly easy to identify a safe and supported environment. 

If you make a mistake, it is not held against you. You feel free to raise concerns and ask all kinds of questions. There are different opinions and voices within teams. 

You are told that it’s safe to take a risk – and that is also your experience. Your skills, experience and insights are valued and utilised. The collaboration and debates can be wide-ranging but it’s healthy and forward-oriented. All different voices are heard regularly.

Play the long-game

Safe conversations, and safe workplaces, are key to organisational success. As managers and leaders, we want to mobilise employees towards unified goals and outcomes. However, are these goals and outcomes always clear, understood, and accepted? 

When individuals know that they can have open conversations with colleagues, team leaders and managers, then they can speak freely, take risks, explore ideas, and even raise questions or concerns. 

Yet, as managers, we cannot expect that everyone is already free to do that. In fact, we have to continually examine our systems, processes, structures and relationships not simply to confirm our biases and beliefs but rather to question whether the systems and processes we believe are in place, are working to support everyone – the enterprise and the individuals in it – as best they can.

If we want to create a workplace that supports, promotes and sustains psychological safety, then, as organisations, we need to look at an overall framework, structures, systems and processes that we can build and maintain to support this. Additionally, leaders must also model the behaviours they seek to promote in others, plain and simple.

Pause and listen

Is it difficult to promote psychological safety? 

Yes, it may be difficult to do so if you view everything only through your own rose-coloured lens and believe that your view is the right one. 

Everyone has a voice and an approach. 

Everyone has ideas bubbling over and can contribute to the collective good but appropriate structures and systems need to be in place so the loud do not drown out the meek and the articulate do not stamp out the voices of those who struggle with the words to say. 

This calls for a pause long enough to care, listen and consider that there are more ways than one to resolve any issue. It may seem complex and difficult at times, but if there’s a will, there are resources, and support structures in place so organisations and their leaders can make psychological safety a reality for all.

#PsychologicalSafety #SafeWorkplace