Understanding Psychological Safety

Encouraging candor, a willingness to challenge the status quo, and understanding that words matter are all traits of a psychologically safe workplace. The result is better performing and more creative teams.

By Emily Carney, SWE Editorial Board

I’m captivated by recent media coverage of whistleblowers, from Erika Cheung and her work at Theranos, as described extensively in the book Bad Blood and a Hulu streaming TV series, “The Dropout,” to Edward Pierson and Boeing’s 737 Max plane design process, as presented in the Netflix documentary “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing.” These examples make me wonder if I will ever face a similar situation in my career, although I aspire to prevent such situations from developing.

Workplaces that require whistleblowers to enact action are considered a rare exception. In fact, many successful workplaces maintain a climate where sharing mistakes is encouraged and becomes a standard way of working. These workplace cultures develop from both individuals who take small acts of courage to speak up with ideas and from leaders who role model and encourage candor. In these organizations, more value is placed on speaking up than sticking to the status quo. The ingredient that makes these teams different is psychological safety. Psychological safety is paramount to an organization’s success and invokes all employees’ commitment to developing a great organization.

Amy Edmondson, Ph.D., Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, contributed to making the term “psychological safety” mainstream. Dr. Edmondson states that psychological safety is a “belief that the context is safe for interpersonal risk taking, that speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes will be welcomed and valued.” Psychological safety is described by Dr. Edmonson as having “shared sense of candor.” It is something you feel.

According to Christine Porath, Ph.D., a professor in the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business and author of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace, when teams feel psychologically safe, they have better performance and creativity. If a team doesn’t have a sense of psychological safety, they are less likely to seek feedback and are less likely to speak up about potential or actual problems.

Many successful workplaces maintain a climate where sharing mistakes is encouraged and becomes a standard way of working. These workplace cultures develop from both individuals who take small acts of courage to speak up with ideas and leaders who role model and encourage candor.

Words matter

Leaders can greatly influence the level of psychological safety in their organizations. If you are a leader who asks more questions than proposes solutions, you are contributing to the positive psychological safety of your team. If you are a leader who acknowledges your own humility and mistakes, you are making it easier for your team to share and learn from their mistakes. If you are a leader who remains curious and promotes continuous learning, you are creating an atmosphere conducive to psychological safety. But that alone may not be enough. Phrases such as “I don’t know the solution; let’s figure it out” and “Our workplace is complex and interdependent and occasionally we all fail” open conversations for participants to voice concerns or ideas.

I recall being part of a cross-functional project team tasked with designing an automated assembly line for a new product. There was pressure to meet the timeline and the budget, and a decision was made to deliver the machine to our factory even though the vendor failed to demonstrate that the machine met performance specifications. After attempts to work around the machine’s inadequacies, the project was paused. One day, riggers came into the factory and removed the machine, piece by piece. I remember feeling discouraged, wondering, “What about the team was ineffective?” and “What could I have done differently?” Later, I recognized that when the project team encountered problems with the machine performance, the requests for help from leaders were not acknowledged and eventually all team members felt silenced.

After an experience where psychological safety was not present, individuals might feel like it is “unsafe” to share an idea. Dr. Edmondson encourages workers to set aside past experiences and to evaluate the psychological safety of each new team environment. Some phrases that could be helpful in these situations include “Something has been troubling me. Do you have a few minutes to talk about it?” or “Our experiment didn’t go as planned.”

Recently, my team developed an in-person, hands-on learning experience for hundreds of employees in our organization. Our creativity felt unstoppable. We eagerly presented our work to a teammate when she returned from vacation. In this situation, our teammate felt comfortable to deliver candid, direct feedback that the course structure was confusing. She proposed an alternate solution and, together as a team, we pivoted. When I think of psychological safety, I think of this example because our teammate respectfully expressed her disagreement with our approach. Her candid feedback and commitment to high standards led to a stronger training course that was better for the trainees.

Psychological safety applies to group dynamics outside of the work environment, and I personally like to practice my skills through my participation in organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers. Dr. Edmondson suggests that leaders frame the work that needs to be done as a learning problem and make it clear that everyone’s voice matters.

When I’m gathering a group of people to solve a problem, I like to explicitly state that everyone was invited for a reason, and that everyone’s perspective, function, and years of experience matter. SWE members bring their work, education, and community experiences to help their organizations perform better. Furthermore, psychological safety advances diversity, equity, and inclusion. When organizations have increased psychological safety, there is an increase of diverse perspectives heard.

Psychological Safety in the Workplace

If you make a mistake within your team, do you question whether you belong? Can you take risks at your company without fear of reprimand? These and other survey-like questions can help you determine if your workplace is a psychologically safe place to be. Hear how to create a psychologically safe organization in the on-demand presentation available on SWE’s online Advance Learning Center.

Emily Carney (she/her) is a human and organizational performance lead for Takeda Pharmaceuticals. She graduated from Tufts University with a B.S. in environmental engineering and an M.S. in engineering management. An active SWE member, Carney currently serves on the editorial board.