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Psychological safety

"Without psychological safety we limit possibility"  C Ritchie 2020

I once asked, at a senior managers meeting, if expecting the inhabitants of a hostel for people with recent histories of sleeping rough to stop smoking cigarettes was the best use of the councils  limited time, effort and resources. My question  was met with ridicule , not respected or explored. I didn’t speak again for the duration of the meeting.

Have you been in a similar situation, where you fear making a suggestion?
Have you ever avoided asking a question because you believed it would be met with a crushing response?
Do you worry about being open when you’re struggling with a piece of work?

If so, what may be missing is psychological safety; the ability to speak up and speak out, the number one ingredient for top performing teams.

Psychological safety is also a pre requisite for creating a PIE, for creative thinking, positive risk taking, elastic tolerance and effective reflective practice. This blog will briefly outline what psychological safety is, why it’s so important and how we can cultivate it.

What it is: An organisational culture where intellectual diversity is valued and encouraged. Where people feel included, safe to learn, contribute and challenge the status quo without fear of being embarrassed, marginalised or punished in some way. The foundation of inclusion and team performance, the key to creating an innovative culture.

“Psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”  A Edmondson [1]

Put simply it’s when people feel able to;

.> speak up

> constructively criticise without anxiety

 > question decisions

> admit mistakes

>  mention concerns

> be curious

What it’s not: Self-censorship, passivity to positional power and unquestioned adherence to the chain of command. Feeling snubbed, ignored, brushed off, passed over, ignored or silenced. A culture where energy is directed to risk management and self-preservation. Restricting others from sharing their ideas and engaging in constructive dissent.

“If were not feeling safe we are in anxiety mode and that can be unhelpful and even detrimental.”  [2]A Edmundson

Why is it so important? “Psychological safety is the number one factor in creating high performing teams.” Without it we can find dulled performance, unused potential and low self-worth. There may be fear, a lack of creativity and instead compliance, polite nods and smiles.

Googles research on what makes a top performing team, “The Aristotle Project”[3] conducted over 2 years with over 180 of their own teams, found psychological safety was top of the list followed by dependability, structure and clarity, meaning and impact.

In his book “The 4 stages of psychological safety” Timothy Clark (2020) comments that leaders need to be proactive in creating psychological safety and Amy Edmundson[1] from Harvard gives us some starting tips below.

1. Encourage curiosity about team members – help your people get to know each other better by creating forums for asking questions about each other’s experiences, areas of expertise, strengths, and struggles. This lowers the need for courage to ask questions about each other and instead improves your people’s levels of confidence and trust in each other

2. Be willing to not know everything – you may believe that as a leader you’re supposed to have all of the answers and be in control, but this is no longer true in businesses that thrive.  Understanding and building psychological safety come with the recognition that you don’t know everything, and you are at the mercy of your people’s willingness to step in and step up and to create value together.

3. Practice inclusive leadership – proactively set the scene by acknowledging that you don’t necessarily know everything and remind your people that it’s vital that you hear their questions, ideas, and challenges. Then proactively seek people’s input by asking questions and respond with appreciation and interest to what they have to contribute



[1] Amy Edmondson “The Fearless Organisation” 2019 Harvard Business School

[1] ditto

[1] https://nyti.ms/20WG1yY

[1] ditto