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Decoding psychological safety

Even though psychological safety has garnered wide popularity in the recent years, it has been research for decades now. The concept of psychological safety was first introduced in the 1960’s via the change management work of Edgar H. Schein and Warren G. Bennis. The phenomenon was then popularised following the works of William Kahn and Amy Edmondson, both in the 1990’s. Primarily looking at what made organisational change successful, Shein and Bennis conceptualised psychological safety as providing an atmosphere where one can take chances without fear and with sufficient protection.

In 1990, drawing from interview and observational data from summer camp counsellors and employees of an architectural firm, William Kahn found that supportive and trusting interpersonal relationships played a key role in promoting psychological safety. Consequently, he described psychological safety as feeling able to employ one’s authentic self without the fear of negative consequences. Participants in Kahn’s study shared ideas readily when they believed they would be received constructively.

Several years later, Edmondson noted that medical teams that reported higher rates of errors also reported greater performance. She concluded that this was not because they made more errors, rather because they were more likely to report errors readily. Teams that felt more psychologically safe discussed errors with their peers and leaders readily, creating opportunities to learn from these errors. The phenomenon also became a hot topic in the news following works such as Project Aristotle at Google in 2012 where they found that in psychologically safe teams, members are more willing to collaborate, innovate, and learn from one another.

So then, what exactly is psychological safety?

In its simplest definition, psychological safety is the ability to take interpersonal risks without the fear of negative consequences. It involves feeling able to ask questions, share opinions, give feedback, and receive criticism without the worry of damage to others’ perception of and reactions to you. When psychological safety is high, people are able to readily share their input without worrying about whether it is right or wrong, they can ask questions if they have a doubt, they can highlight mistakes without worrying about hurting feelings, or ask for help knowing that others will not think of them as incompetent.

Since the seminal works of Edmondson, a plethora of research of psychological safety has been published, particularly during and following the pandemic era. A quick database search will tell you that over 1,000 articles referring to psychological safety have been published in the past decade (2014 to 2023). Google scholar will return nearly 45,000 results for ‘psychological safety’ between 2020 and 2023 alone. The popularity of the topic has grown as we now understand that in a world relying on knowledge workers, we won’t get far without psychological safety.

The evidence almost unanimously suggests that when psychological safety in work settings is high, performance, creativity, innovation, and productivity increases. When your people report higher psychological safety, they are also happier, healthier, more satisfied in their jobs and will likely stay on in the role for longer. In fact, the positive impact of psychological safety extends beyond work life. Studies have shown that people who report greater psychological safety at work, report feeling better in other aspects of life as well. If you have ever felt undervalued, overlooked, anxious, and unsafe at work, you would know how detrimental it can be to your wellbeing, as a whole.

In conclusion, psychological safety, a concept that has existed in the sphere of management and organisational behaviour for over half a century, is a foundational stone of workplaces relying on knowledge workers. When psychological safety is high, people speak up fearlessly whether it is to ask questions, share thoughts or give creative feedback. Psychological safety is linked to better outcomes in a range of organisational and individual level factors such as performance, engagement, and job satisfaction. Therefore, to better leverage from the knowledge of your people and create conditions where they can readily collaborate with each other, focusing on enhancing psychological safety at work, is imperative.

For more information, see these research reviews on psychological safety.

  1. Edmondson, A. C., & Bransby, D. P. (2023). Psychological safety comes of age: Observed themes in an established literature. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behaviour, 10, 55-78.

  2. O’Donovan, R., & McAuliffe, E. (2020). A systematic review of factors that enable psychological safety in healthcare teams. International journal for quality in health care, 32(4), 240-250.

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