Psychological safety: an overlooked secret to organizational performance

Psychological safety is an essential foundational component for innovation, divergent thinking, creativity and risk-taking — but it should not be confused with comfort. There are a number of small behaviors leaders can cultivate to help their teams take more interpersonal risks to increase psychological safety.

Joanne Dias, David Altman | December 1, 2020


Have you ever worked on a team with low psychological safety? How about with high psychological safety? Chances are you could probably answer these questions without even knowing the full definition of this concept.

We have worked in both situations, and the differences in effectiveness are stark. We have been part of teams that came together rapidly, agreed on a common understanding of next steps (though it took challenging conversations to come to agreement), executed flawlessly and then disbanded and moved on to other initiatives. Equally vivid are memories of teams where communication did not flow, trust between team members was low, clarity was lacking, people held back in sharing ideas and opinions, and the teams therefore struggled to meet expected deliverables and deadlines.

Underneath it all ran the thread of psychological safety, which is defined by Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School and author of “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth,” as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Psychological safety is the why behind our responses to the questions, “Can I speak up? Will I be punished or ridiculed for sharing my opinion? Can I be honest about who I am and my perspective?” If you respond “no” to one or more of these questions, there is a good chance that there is a lack of sufficient psychological safety on that team. If you respond “yes” to all, could you say the same for every member of the teams in your organization?

Psychological safety is an essential foundational component for innovation, divergent thinking, creativity and risk-taking. At the same time, it should not be confused with comfort. Teams that are comfortable are less likely to take risks for fear of disrupting the current status quo, which then ultimately decreases the sense of psychological safety. Team members need to feel safe enough to speak up while also acknowledging a productive level of discomfort that pushes them toward growth and progress. As Google learned during Project Aristotle, having a team of superstars did not guarantee the team would be high-functioning. Teams also needed the right levels of psychological safety to build momentum and bring their ideas to life.

When we share this insight with leaders with whom we work to make the case that time spent on increasing psychological safety will produce a significant return on investment, there is uniform head-nodding and at least a vague commitment to make psychological safety a higher priority. Unless there is intentional intervention, however, little or no progress is made because leaders are not sure how to cultivate psychological safety or think the effort is too daunting.

In these instances, leaders who truly want to cultivate psychological safety would be wise to draw on one of George Washington’s oft-cited Scottish maxims, “Many a mickle makes a muckle” (i.e., the accumulation of small amounts of something that over time becomes a large amount), which is echoed by recent research around tiny habitsThe Progress Principlesmall wins and atomic habits. Once small behaviors or habits begin to accumulate, they build on each other. Likewise, once leaders focus their attention on increasing psychological safety in small ways, the accumulation of those small behaviors across teams can lead to transformational changes at the organizational level.

As a result, when we see head-nodding around the importance of psychological safety, we then strive to gain head-nodding about small behaviors that leaders can cultivate to help their teams take more interpersonal risks to increase psychological safety. How do we do that?

Small steps toward psychological safety

One tactical method that the Center for Creative Leadership uses involves asking each team member to publicly share their responses to the sentence completion exercise: “I will …” and “We should … .” By recording these statements, having transparent public commitments to act, establishing accountability partners, and building in “nudges” to prompt follow-up, we have found that leaders are more successful in leading their teams and organizations down the path of increasing psychological safety.

A second potential source of inspiration is the Agile method of creating Scrum teams. The first value of the Agile manifesto is “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools,” which acknowledges that organizations and teams are made up of human systems. The five values of a Scrum team are focus, courage, openness, commitment and respect, and the three pillars of Scrum are transparency, inspection and adaptation. Better teams have a climate of openness that allows them to discuss and learn from failures. Scrum teams assign a person responsible for upholding these values and creating transparency. The Scrum Master is considered a servant leader for the team. They are not the team leader, nor do they have reporting responsibility for any team members, nor any accountability for the final output. The Scrum Master is responsible for promoting and supporting the right team environment, including managing and changing interpersonal interactions (nudges) to create transparency and maximize the value created by the team, thereby working to build and maintain a psychologically safe environment.

The onset of COVID-19 has taught us the value of responding in an agile manner to change and transform, and as we reflect on the successes of the many organizational responses, the values and pillars of psychologically safe Scrum teams offer a framework to understand how to create a team climate that focuses on learning from failure, building inclusion and demonstrating transparency.

Third, because sustaining psychological safety requires constant attention and nurturing as it is a state more than it is a trait, leaders and team members need to be vigilant in attending to conditions that lower and raise interpersonal fear. In an era in which issues around diversity, equity and inclusion have taken center stage, leaders must understand that having high levels of psychological safety is a prerequisite to achieving a truly inclusive culture, especially one that embraces the importance of diversity and elevates equity to a high priority. Indeed, the tough issues embedded in DEI can only be effectively raised when employees are not operating in a state of interpersonal fear of speaking about their lived experiences.

A lesson from Scrum teams demonstrates the necessity and value of implementing tiny habits that support building toward an inclusive team climate. For example, assigning someone the role of facilitating team interactions with the goal of being mindful about creating space for team members to speak openly about failures can support a psychologically safe team environment. While everyone on the team must be responsible for fostering an inclusive culture, the leader can pave the way by demonstrating vulnerability through sharing stories and inviting others to do the same.

Fourth, and most important, in seeking to build psychological safety we need to be willing to stop and reflect on how we are doing. Working in sprints, or small bursts with planned pauses for reflection, builds the habit of continually inspecting the way we work. Building an effective balance of productive discomfort and safety requires constant practice and vigilance. Once these habits are built and solidified in individual and team behavior, teams and organizations will be able to make progress against extraordinary outcomes.

As 2020 — the year of reinvention — has shown us, the presence or lack of psychological safety can be the make-or-break factor for necessary transformation.

Joanne Dias, M.A., is a leadership solutions partner at the Center for Creative Leadership, where she designs and delivers customized leadership programs for leaders within global organizations. Joanne has developed and launched assessment and development centers in 12-plus countries and facilitated organizational change initiatives and trainings for individuals, cross-functional and executive teams. David Altman, Ph.D., is the chief operating officer at the Center for Creative Leadership. He previously led the CCL global research and innovation group and the Europe, Middle East and Africa region. He is involved in delivering leadership programs globally. To comment, email editor@clomedia.com.