What is psychological safety?

As more and more consultants, managers, and other observers of organizational life are talking about psychological safety, the risk of misunderstanding what the concept is all about has intensified. Here are some common misconceptions, along with clarifications.

Psychological safety is not about being nice

Working in a psychologically safe environment does not mean that people always agree with one another for the sake of being nice. It also does not mean that people offer unequivocal praise or unconditional support for everything you have to say. In fact, you could say it’s the opposite. Psychological safety is about candor, about making it possible for productive disagreement and free exchange of ideas. It goes without saying that these are vital to learning and innovation. Conflict inevitably arises in any workplace. Psychological safety enables people on different sides of a conflict to speak candidly about what’s bothering them.

In many companies in which I’ve consulted or conducted research, I’ll hear a variation of the following: “We have a problem with ‘[Company Name] Nice’.” They go on to describe the common experience of being “polite” to one another in meetings, only to disagree later when people talk privately in the hallway, along with a tendency to not actually implement that which was discussed in the meeting. Nice, in short, is not synonymous with psychologically safe. In a related vein, psychological safety does not imply ease or comfort. In contrast, psychological safety is about candor and willingness to engage in productive conflict so as to learn from different points of view.

Psychological safety is not a personality factor

Some have interpreted psychological safety as a synonym for extroversion. They might have previously concluded that people don’t speak up at work because they’re shy or lack confidence, or simply prefer to keep to themselves. However, research shows that the experience of psychological safety at work is not correlated with introversion and extroversion. This is because psychological safety refers to the work climate, and climate affects people with different personality traits in roughly similar ways. In a psychologically safe climate, people will offer ideas and voice their concerns regardless of whether they tend toward introversion or extroversion.

 Psychological safety is not just another word for trust

Although trust and psychological safety have much in common, they are not interchangeable concepts. A key difference is that psychological safety is experienced at a group level. People working together tend to have similar perceptions of whether or not the climate is psychologically safe. Trust, on the other hand, refers to interactions between two individuals or parties; trust exists in the mind of an individual and pertains to a specific target individual or organization. For instance, you might trust one colleague but not another. Or, to illustrate trust in an organization, you might trust a particular company to uphold high standards.

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Further, psychological safety describes a temporally immediate experience. Whereas trust describes an expectation about whether another person or organization can be counted on to do what it promises to do in some future moment, the psychological experience of safety pertains to expectations about immediate interpersonal consequences. For example, when Christina fails to ask a physician about a medication she believes might be warranted, she is worried about the immediate consequence of asking her question—the risk of being berated or humiliated. Trust pertains instead to whether Christina believes the doctor can and will do the right thing for patients. One way to put this is that trust is about giving others the benefit of the doubt, and psychological safety relates to whether others will give you the benefit of the doubt when, for instance, you have asked for help or admitted a mistake.

 Psychological safety is not about lowering performance standards

Psychological safety is not an “anything goes” environment where people are not expected to adhere to high standards or meet deadlines. It is not about becoming “comfortable” at work. This is particularly important to understand because many managers appreciate the appeal of error-reporting, help-seeking, and other proactive behavior to help their organizations learn. At the same time, they implicitly equate psychological safety with relaxing performance standards—that is, with an inability to, in their words, “hold people accountable.” This conveys a misunderstanding of the nature of the phenomenon. Psychological safety enables candor and openness and, as such, thrives in an environment of mutual respect. It means that people believe they can—and must—be forthcoming at work. In fact, psychological safety is conducive to setting ambitious goals and working toward them together. Psychological safety sets the stage for a more honest, more challenging, more collaborative, and thus also more effective work environment. Researchers around the world have found that psychological safety promotes high performance in a wide range of work environments and industries. In short, psychological safety and performance standards are two separate, equally important dimensions—both of which affect team and organizational performance in a complex interdependent environment.

When both psychological safety and performance standards are low, the workplace becomes a kind of “apathy zone.” People show up at work, but their hearts and minds are elsewhere. They choose self-protection over exertion every time. Discretionary effort might be spent perusing social media or on making each other’s lives miserable.

In workplaces with high psychological safety but low performance standards, people generally enjoy working with one another; they are open and collegial but not challenged by the work. Let’s call this the “comfort zone.” Today, fewer workplaces around the world than ever fall into this quadrant, and it’s just as well. When employees are comfortable being themselves but don’t see a compelling reason to seek additional challenge, there won’t be much learning or innovation—nor will there be much engagement or fulfillment.

But it’s not the comfort or apathy zones that worry me most. What keeps me up at night is that when performance standards are high but psychological safety is low—a situation far too common in today’s workplace—employees are anxious about speaking up, and both work quality and workplace safety suffer.

Managers in these organizations have unfortunately confused setting high standards with good management. High standards in a context where there is uncertainty or interdependence (or both) combined with a lack of psychological safety comprise a recipe for suboptimal performance. And sometimes, it’s a recipe for disaster. I call this the “anxiety zone.” Here I’m not referring to anxiety about being able to accomplish a demanding goal or about the competitive business environment but rather to interpersonal anxiety. The experience of having a question or an idea but not feeling able to share it can be deeply unsatisfying at work. And it is a serious risk factor in any company facing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

Finally, when standards and psychological safety are both high, I call this the learning zone. If the work is uncertain, interdependent, or both, this is also the high-performance zone. Here, people can collaborate, learn from each other, and get complex, innovative work done. In a VUCA world, high performance occurs when people are actively learning as they go.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.


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