The concept of “psychological safety” isn’t particularly new, but in recent years it’s become one of THE buzzwords in business. More and more, studies are revealing that psychological safety is absolutely vital for team success, engagement, productivity, retention and overall happiness. But what do we really mean by the term? What does psychological safety at work look like? And why, exactly, is it so important?
The term “psychological safety” was coined by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson back in 1999, but the concept was first described almost a decade earlier by William A. Khan – whose work actually formed a big part of Edmonson’s research.
In Khan’s words, psychological safety is about: “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career."
The concept has soared into the HR radar over the past few years. In 2015, a two-year study by Google was published exploring the most essential aspects of building a successful team. It found that success wasn’t down to having intelligent and ambitious people – nor was it the result of methodical, precise employees who made few mistakes. Instead, it found that psychological safety was the single most important factor.
Project Aristotle – as Google’s study was called – found that the teams who made more mistakes were more successful, as Edmonson had suggested. But in reality, these teams weren’t actually making more mistakes... they were just being open about making them. If someone messed up, they communicated it – they didn’t feel an immediate sense of unease and sweep their error under the carpet, or quickly clean it up before anyone saw.
This is the crux of psychological safety; in its simplest form, psychological safety just means feeling safe enough to take risks, to share and contribute ideas, without worry or fear. Of course, taking risks is essential if you want to stay innovative. But it shouldn’t just be a surface appearance; scratch beneath the surface and the concept should run a lot deeper.
Having psychological safety also means feeling trusted, respected, and generally valued as an individual. It means knowing that your wellbeing actually matters to your employers. It means understanding the quality of your performance – which depends on honest feedback – and knowing that management will listen to your own feedback.
To feel psychologically safe at work, you need to know that your opinions count. Research by Gallup in 2017 shows that in the U.S, only 3 in 10 employees felt their opinions truly count. But, if that quota was doubled and 6 in 10 employees felt their opinions mattered, companies could see a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents, and a 12% increase in overall productivity.
These findings are backed up by Google’s Project Aristotle, which found that employees who belonged to teams with high levels of psychological safety were less likely to leave, brought in more revenue, were rated as more effective, and were also more likely to come up with diverse, creative ideas by working successfully with their colleagues.
The idea of feeling safe transcends merely sharing opinions or giving feedback without worry. It’s also about having job security, of not feeling like you’re walking on eggshells. It means knowing your company has your back and will respond dutifully to anything that threatens your wellbeing at work. It’s about knowing you have people to talk to if problems arise, that you have the option for time off, or to work flexibly if you need to. It means transparency, too – in communication, as well as how the company is company is doing financially and in terms of performance.
When you look at what psychological safety really means, the importance of it shouldn’t really come as a surprise – but in a culture where we’re so fixated on earnings and quantifiable success, it’s easy to see how it can be overlooked. At work, it’s essential to recognize that we’re human beings, not machines, and in order to succeed we need to be able to listen to one another, to show sensitivity to other people’s feelings and needs.
If we don’t do this, people won’t feel safe. They won’t feel comfortable to share new ideas without feeling intimidated. They won’t feel able to express themselves openly. They won’t be engaged at work, to feel excited about taking risks or experimenting. When you’re withholding part of yourself, you can never put yourself wholly into your work. Psychological safety fosters trust and openness. It builds relationships and encourages innovation. As with anything worth having, it may take a while to implement, but the rewards will be invaluable.