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A Psychological Safety Primer

Going against the grain may make people feel unsafe, yet it is through this process that true psychological safety is ultimately achieved — because people feel safe to feel unsafe and to challenge the status quo.

I recently read an article which began: ‘No one likes to deliver bad news to their boss.’ It gave me pause for two reasons. The first is that sweeping statements are, by definition — sweeping, and start from a poor footing because in a world as diverse as ours there will always be ‘that guy’ who bucks the trend. Second, I have met people who do like giving bad news to their boss. Sometimes because the employee likes to stir the pot and enjoys the chaos. In other instances the boss is a bit of a jerk and deserves to be on the receiving end of what they regularly dole out to other people. Yes, schadenfreude is a thing, even among the most high minded of people.

Reframe the statement along the lines of ‘no one likes to deliver bad news to their boss if they fear unreasonable negative repercussions’, and I would be in agreement with the author. The word ‘unreasonable’ is a vital one here, because while it is not healthy to create an atmosphere of fear in an organisation, if people think there can never be negative repercussions for actions then the practice of management breaks down as responsibility, ownership, and accountability will likely be absent.

If we assume for a moment an organisational culture that is both rational and reasonable — with clear employee accountability — then I can begin to unpack a concept that I touched upon in last week’s column, DEI — A Continuum of Acceptance, Understanding, and Questioning — that concept is psychological safety.

A Potted History

The term was coined in the 1950s by Carl Rogers, one of the founding fathers of psychotherapy research and humanistic psychology, and is associated with three processes:

  1. The unconditional worth of an individual.
  2. Creating a climate absent of external evaluation.
  3. Empathetic understanding.

Rogers thought that such an environment would prove optimal for fostering an individual’s creativity. In the 1960s, Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis expanded on Rogers’ original notion to understand psychological safety as creating:

an atmosphere where one can take chances (which experimentalism implies) without fear and with sufficient protection (…) thus a climate is built which encourages provisional tries and which tolerates failure without retaliation, renunciation, or guilt.

(Schein and Bennis 1965)

In the 1980s, William Edwards Deming weaved this theme into his 14 key principles for managers to effectively transform businesses. Principle number 8 was ‘drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company’.

More recently, ‘Team Psychological Safety’ has been a key area of research for Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson. The team element needs an underline because it forms the central argument of her thesis: a willingness to speak up and feelings of safety are not individual traits. Rather, they are

a group level phenomenon… [which shape] the learning behavior of the group and in turn affects team performance and therefore organizational performance.

(Gallo, 2023)

Project Aristotle, which studied the factors impacting team effectiveness at Google, concluded that Psychological Safety was the most important of 5 key dynamics that are present in effective teams:

  1. Psychological safety: Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.
  2. Dependability: On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time (vs the opposite – shirking responsibilities).
  3. Structure and clarity: An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance are important for team effectiveness. Goals can be set at the individual or group level, and must be specific, challenging, and attainable. Google often uses Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to help set and communicate short and long term goals.
  4. Meaning: Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness. The meaning of work is personal and can vary: financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, or self-expression for each individual, for example.
  5. Impact: The results of one’s work, the subjective judgement that your work is making a difference, is important for teams. Seeing that one’s work is contributing to the organization’s goals can help reveal impact.
Project Aristotle

Perhaps most interestingly, Team Psychological Safety can support both high employee discretionary power and a strongly hierarchical organisation. The reason for this is that:

it depends on how hierarchical status is leveraged and, specifically, on whether those with higher status adopt a participative approach.

(Bunderson and Boungarden, 2010)

While valuable, both for individual peace of mind and team performance, psychological safety has its drawbacks and risks. Of these, three spring most readily to mind.

First, TMGT Effect. the ‘too-much-of-a-good-thing’ effect is when something normally associated with being positive becomes a negative. An example of this is when a conscientious employee takes so long over ‘getting it right’ that they neglect other important work, creating risks in other areas of the organisation (Pierce and Aguinis, 2013).

Second, Unethical Behaviour. as psychological safety increases, there is a correlation with increased unethical behaviour among employees as they feel safe to behave in ways known to contradict accepted behaviour (Pearsall and Ellis, 2011).

Third, Reduced Motivation. while psychological safety is positively related to reducing employee fear of failure, it has also been shown to lower motivation. A manifestation of this is when employees are so comfortable with each other that they spend an inappropriate amount of time in casual conversation, at the expense of their work (Deng et al, 2019).

Much as psychological safety is not a ‘new’ conceptualisation, so too the negative consequences are not newly emerging. Writing some fifty years before Carl Rogers gave rise to the concept, Émile Durkheim observed ‘if purely moral rules are at stake, the public conscience restricts any act which infringes them’. Without divergence from safe views, without an opposing system of thought or differing set or moral rules, consciousness will ‘petrify too easily into an immutable form. For it to evolve, individual originality must be allowed to manifest itself’. In other words, there is a time when employees need to feel a sense of safety, but there are also times when a sense of danger is appropriate to help stimulate the act of thinking differently.

This brings us to the seeming paradox of psychological safety. Going against the grain may make people feel unsafe, yet it is through this process that true psychological safety is ultimately achieved — because people feel safe to feel unsafe and to challenge the status quo.

Good night, and good luck.

Photo by Matthew Waring on Unsplash.

Further Reading

Bunderson, JS, and Boumgarden, P (2010) Structure and learning in self-managed teams: Why “bureaucratic” teams can be better learners. Organization Science (Providence, R.I.), 21(3), 609–624.

Deming, WE (1982) Out of the crisis: Quality, productivity and competitive position, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Deng, H, Leung, K, Lam, CK, and Huang, X (2019) Slacking Off in Comfort: A Dual-Pathway Model for Psychological Safety Climate. Journal of Management, 45(3), 1114–1144.

Edmondson, AC (2018) The Fearless Organization, Wiley.

Gallo, A (2023, February 15) What Is Psychological Safety? Harvard Business Review, 1–8.

Pearsall, MJ, and Ellis, APJ (2011) Thick as Thieves: The Effects of Ethical Orientation and Psychological Safety on Unethical Team Behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(2), 401–411.

Pierce, JR, and Aguinis, H (2013) The Too-Much-of-a-Good-Thing Effect in Management. Journal of Management, 39(2), 313–338.

Rogers, C (1954) Towards a Theory of Creativity. In P. E. (Philip E. Vernon, ed., Creativity: Selected Readings, Harmondsworth: Penguin, , 137–151.

Schein, EH, and Bennis, WG (1965) Personal and organizational change through group methods: The laboratory approach, New York: Wiley.

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