Psychological safety

– what, why and how?


Rand Blak Barawy

Are you interested in creating an effective and high-performing team, or are you merely curious about how it can be done? Creating a workplace and a social climate that foster psychological safety is key to creating effective and high-performing teams.

If we want to support organisations in becoming more fit for humans, an important part is to work with both culture and behaviour in organisations, teams and individuals. Having worked with a broad range of clients on creating effective and high-performing teams, one key approach has been to foster psychological safety.

What constitutes the effective high-performing team?

In 2012, Google launched Project Aristotle in their quest to build the effective high-performing team. They wanted to find out what the main ingredients of the effective high-performing team were and gathered some of the company’s best specialists, including statisticians, organisational psychologists, sociologist and engineers. Project Aristotle’s researchers reviewed half a century of academic studies looking at how teams worked and had also internally been collecting surveys, conducting interviews, making observations of groups and analysing statistics for almost three years.

In 2015, Project Aristotle’s researchers concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were the keys to improving the teams of the company. In line with a 2010 study (Wolley et al.), they determined traits like social sensitivity and conversational turn-taking as instrumental ingredients in an effective high-performing team. Since both traits are central aspects of the concept of psychological safety, the project team became very interested in the concept and dug into its core.

Psychological safety is daring to speak up and make mistakes

Psychological safety was defined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson back in 1999 as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”.

A psychologically safe workplace is one where employees dare to speak up and make mistakes without the fear of humiliation and punishment. In psychologically safe teams, the team members give each other feedback and challenge each other. Thus, candour and authenticity are central elements. Also, healthy and constructive conflicts are a main part of forming a psychologically safe team.

If team members are kind and polite without being candour and honest, team members will miss out on the opportunity to communicate with and learn from each other. Valuing politeness over progress has by author Kim Scott (2017) been named “ruinous empathy” – an empathy that may make employees feel good in the short term but fail to help people grow or improve.

I find it important to highlight a distinction between psychological safety and interpersonal trust, as psychological safety involves and goes beyond interpersonal trust. It describes a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect, in which people are comfortable being themselves. We must thus understand psychological safety as a team concept rather than a concept that describes the relationship between two individuals (Edmondson, 1999).