What is Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Its Impact on Performance

6 mins read

This article discusses what Psychological Safety is and why it may be important to you.

A common problem that comes up in workplaces develops around employees who are unwilling to make potential contributions even when they know there is an error or broken process heading towards disaster. So, the BIG question is why do employees stay silent when they know they should speak up? The main reason for this is because they are anxious or afraid to engage, and this fear usually comes from a feeling of not being safe enough. This apprehension of being able to express oneself safely, has been defined as Psychological Safety. So, what exactly is Psychological Safety and who developed this term? We will answer these questions to give you an understanding of what psychological safety is in the work environment.

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is the ability to present and engage yourself without fear of possible negative consequences to your career, status, or self-image. Within a team environment, this can be described as the shared trust to take risks with each other and is accompanied with a feeling of acceptance and respect. This concept was first identified in 1999 by Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. In Amy’s words, “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

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What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is the ability to present and engage yourself without fear of possible negative consequences to your career, status, or self-image. Within a team environment, this can be described as the shared trust to take risks with each other and is accompanied with a feeling of acceptance and respect. This concept was first identified in 1999 by Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. In Amy’s words, “Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

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Since her original discovery of Psychological Safety and its impacts in 1999, Amy has continued to observe how companies with a trusting workplace perform better. In 2019 she published her book “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth”.

Originally, Amy Edmondson started her research with the question: “Do better hospital teams make fewer medication errors?”, in hopes of also getting exact ratios of medication errors. She received surprising results that showed the teams she considered higher performing, were having more errors which motivated her to dig deeper into the topic. Amy then thought to herself “Maybe the higher performing teams aren’t making more mistakes, maybe they’re more willing to discuss them. What if the better teams have a climate of openness that allows them to report and even get to the bottom of these things.”

To prove this theory, Amy sent out a young research assistant that had no prior knowledge about any of the hospital teams he was observing, and also no knowledge of her hypothesis. What he found was that each team was very different in how they dealt with errors, and some were working together to find new ways to reduce the errors – which is what Amy coined as Psychological Safety later in her career.

Once she received the results from the research assistant, she placed the hospitals in order of their ranking for Psychological Safety. She was able to see that the ones rated with higher psychological safety had the highest ratings for reported errors. If employees are not reporting errors, how are we supposed to make improvements and fix the mistakes for the future?

Safety to Consider

We hope this reading has provided enough information to allow you to consider the safety status of your workplace environment, as there are many benefits that your business may experience by providing psychological safety. Here is our final question to leave you with: are your employees comfortable and trusting enough to share in your workplace environment?

Interested in some tips to promote psychological safety in your workplace? Check back for our 3 part series “Tips for Building Psychological Safety in Your Workplace”.

Download this resource article What is Psychological Safety in the Workplace (pdf).

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