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Why 'psychological safety' is so important in the workplace

Frustrated female computer programmer with head in hands sitting in creative office
Employers should make sure all ideas are listened to, accepted and discussed. Photo: Getty

If you’ve ever thought of an important point in a meeting but kept quiet, you’re not alone. Research suggests that, when faced with the choice of whether or not to raise an issue, employees often choose to remain silent.

In an ideal world, a team should be able to bounce ideas off each other to come up with plans, solve problems and provide support to one another. However, it’s not always easy to speak up in front of your boss, colleagues or clients — and it can be even harder if you work in an environment that doesn’t encourage openness or collaboration.

This is because speaking up often carries a risk of being judged, rejected or punished, particularly if we make mistakes. To avoid this, we withhold important suggestions and concerns to protect ourselves — to the detriment of businesses and our careers.

The answer is relatively simple, however: Psychological safety.

What is psychological safety?

Being able to be yourself and speak your mind at work comes with many benefits. It allows us to show our true selves, take risks and be creative without fear of being ostracised and embarrassed. Psychological safety is a feature that allows us to do just this.

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First described in a 1999 academic paper by Amy Edmonson, an organisational behavioural scientist from Harvard University, psychological safety describes a climate in which speaking up is enabled and expected. She defines it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

And these risks don’t have to be particularly big in order for people to shy away from them, she found. “Asking for help, admitting errors, and seeking feedback exemplify the kinds of behaviours that pose a threat to face, and thus people in organisations are often reluctant to disclose their errors or are unwilling to ask for help, even when doing so would provide benefits for the team or organisation,” she explained.

What are the benefits of psychological safety?

Edmonson carried out research about “learning behaviours” in hospital nursing teams to find out more about psychological safety. She found that the best teams had a culture where workers felt able to speak up about medical errors, in order to learn from them and improve care for patients.

Less effective teams, where workers felt unable to speak up for fear of repercussions, stayed quiet about the mistakes they witnessed.

Decades on from Edmonson’s research, employers have taken on board her findings about the importance of psychological safety at work.

In 2015, Google published the results of more than 200 interviews with its employees to find out what makes a great team. Of the five key features of effective teams that the researchers identified, psychological safety was by far the most important.

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“Taking a risk around your team members seems simple. But remember the last time you were working on a project,” the researchers wrote. “Did you feel like you could ask what the goal was without the risk of sounding like you’re the only one out of the loop? Or did you opt for continuing without clarifying anything, in order to avoid being perceived as someone who is unaware?”

Although it’s natural to want to protect ourselves at work, it can be detrimental to effective teamwork. However, feeling safe among your colleagues means you may be more likely to admit mistakes, take on new roles and engage in critical thinking.

“Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives,” the researchers found.

Other studies have found benefits associated with psychological safety too, including better performance and creativity.

So how can businesses foster an environment which encourages employees to feel comfortable and safe among their peers?

READ MORE: How to cope when you lose your sense of purpose at work

The key to psychological safety is to make sure people feel comfortable when speaking up. Employers can do this by making sure all ideas are listened to, accepted and discussed, even the unusual ones. It’s also important to make sure people aren’t blamed or interrupted too.

Encourage people to talk in meetings by asking questions, or speaking to them in a one-to-one session about their ideas. Make sure feedback is constructive and positive, rather than critical — and help people develop ideas.

It’s essential to lead by example from the top down. Managers and anyone in a position of responsibility should behave in the way they want employees to do so. They should acknowledge their mistakes, ask for feedback, be approachable and in particular, be open to all opinions.