Why is Psychological Safety Such a Hot Topic?

The concept of psychological safety is a buzz-phrase nowadays in the field of organisational and leadership development.  It is defined as the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, plays a pivotal role in creating a work environment where individuals feel valued, respected, and empowered to contribute their best.


The Importance of Psychological Safety

In a TED talk given by Amy Edmundson on this topic, she provides real life examples and data on studies that she carried out in the healthcare arena in the United States.  She found that high performing teams talk about the mistakes they make, on a regular basis! She calls is a ‘climate of openness’ that allows teams to report and get to the bottom of mistakes.

At first glance, it looked like these teams make a lot of mistakes per se, but in fact, what the data pointed to was that the lower performing teams do not report out on the mistakes they make, nor do they discuss or share the valuable learning that making mistakes can make.  

Amy Edmondson’s TED Talk on psychological safety

Common Traits of a Lack of Safety

In my work, guiding teams through culture change, there are common traits that show a lack of a psychologically safe environment:

  1. ‘We never make any mistakes’
  2. ‘Everybody here always get’s along, all the time’
  3. ‘Everyone knows how to do the job, it’s easy!’

These three statements are red flags for a lack of psychological safety.  They can point to the fact that nobody owns up to making a mistake because it’s really not ok to do so.  That conflict is pushed under the carpet and that nobody asks questions about how to improve things or find out how things work because people are afraid to look silly, or worse again, they don’t care enough to ask.

When people and teams need to depend on each other to achieve success, combined with an element of uncertainty about how to get there; psychological safety is an essential ingredient.


Misconceptions About Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is not about keeping everyone in a nice warm comfort zone where everyone feels good all the time.  It is about holding people to account for achieving great results, in a way that people aren’t afraid to speak up, hold a different perspective, or disagree with the status-quo. What are the ways to assess the levels of psychological safety in your team?


Assessing Psychological Safety in Your Team

Leaders can gauge the presence of psychological safety in their organization by observing certain indicators and behaviours among team members, such as:

  1. Open Communication: Leaders can assess psychological safety by observing if team members freely share their thoughts, ideas, concerns, and feedback without fear of negative consequences or judgment.
  2. Willingness to Take Risks: A psychologically safe environment encourages individuals to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them without the fear of retribution or blame. Leaders can observe if team members feel comfortable stepping out of their comfort zones and trying new approaches.
  3. Constructive Feedback: In psychologically safe workplaces, team members provide and receive feedback openly and constructively. Leaders can assess if feedback is given respectfully, received positively, and used as a tool for growth and improvement.
  4. Inclusive Environment: Psychological safety fosters inclusivity where all team members feel valued, respected, and included. Leaders can evaluate if diverse perspectives are encouraged, respected, and integrated into decision-making processes.
  5. Team Engagement and Innovation: High levels of psychological safety lead to increased engagement, creativity, and innovation within teams. Leaders can observe if team members actively participate in discussions, share ideas freely, and collaborate effectively.


Building a Safe Team Culture

By paying attention to these indicators and actively promoting a culture of trust, respect, open communication, vulnerability, and inclusivity within their organizations, leaders can create an environment where psychological safety thrives, enabling teams to perform at their best and drive innovation and success.


If you’d like help to build a psychologically-safe team culture within your organisation, please get in touch by booking a clarity call or at denise@obrienlearningsolutions.ie.