If there was one thing I could teach leaders across the world – it would be psychological safety. Decades of research have shown that psychological safety is the one thing all high-performance teams have in common.
Today we face rapidly changing and complex work environments. It is time for organizations to recognize the critical role of psychological safety in fostering employee well-being, creativity, and productivity. Psychological safety refers to an environment where individuals feel safe to express their opinions, take risks, and be their authentic selves without fear of negative consequences or judgment. Leadership plays an essential role in cultivating and sustaining psychological safety within teams and organizations.
Psychological safety is a fundamental element in creating an environment that encourages open communication and collaboration. Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor, conducted extensive research on psychological safety and found that teams with high levels of psychological safety perform better, learn faster, and demonstrate higher levels of innovation. By fostering an environment where individuals feel secure to share ideas, voice concerns, and challenge the status quo, leaders can unlock the full potential of their teams.
There are four steps leaders can take to encourage psychological safety in their teams.
Ask and Pause: One of my favorite quotes from Amy Edmonson is “ great leaders speak last.” Strong, secure leaders ask many questions of their teams. Before speaking up themselves, leaders gather thoughts and ideas from the team. When the team is silent, they take time to pause. This lets the team reflect and give more thoughtful answers.
Encourage Risk: Mistakes and failures should be looked at as learning opportunities. Leaders encourage their teams to take risks, try different things and come at problems from many different angles. The worst thing a leader can say is “this is the way we have always done it..” Leaders creating a psychologically safe environment are open to risk and possible failure.
Role-Model: Creating a culture of psychological safety requires positive role-models. Role-models that aren’t afraid to say: here’s a time I failed, what are you seeing that I am not, I was wrong, here’s a time when things didn’t go so well… By opening up about their own failures, leaders encourage others to be open about their mistakes instead of hiding them.
Encourage On-Going Learning: Offering continual learning opportunities strengthens teams. By creating an environment where learning is prioritized, psychological safety can grow as well. Each member of their team (including the leader) should have on-going personalized learning development plans.
Psychological safety is a critical component of successful organizations, enabling individuals to bring their full selves to work and fostering an environment of trust, collaboration, and innovation. Effective leadership plays a pivotal role in cultivating and sustaining psychological safety within teams and organizations. By creating a culture that values openness, encourages risk-taking, empowers the voice of team members, and mitigates the fear of failure, leaders can unlock the full potential of their teams.
Reflection Question: What steps am I willing to take to foster increased psychological safety?
Next Topic: Leadership Regret and Self-Compassion
Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.
Edmondson, A. (2018). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. Wiley.
Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work. Academy of Management Journal, 33(4), 692-724