Psychological safety – what is it and why you should care

Post by 
Harry Vazanias
May 14, 2019

he term Psychological Safety was coined by Amy Edmondson in 1999 after a study she was involved in unearthed an interesting surprise. Researching mistakes by medical teams in the US, she discovered that the teams seen as the high performers were the ones with the highest mistakes, and in turn, the lower performers had the least. On further analysis she discovered that the high performing teams had a culture of transparency and trust (what Edmondson described as “Psychological Safety”), and hence were more willing to disclose their mistakes. Edmondson’s findings were not new, but she brought a fresh spotlight to the link between a high trust environment and that of high performance.

Edmondson’s work has been backed up by study after study. In 2014 Google’s own project on what makes for high performing teams in their organisation found that Psychological Safety was a key determining factor for whether a team would perform well. Their research can be found on their rework site here.  Other organisations such as Netflix, who have often been praised for their ‘high performance culture’, actively promote the need to “share information openly, broadly, and deliberately”, and to be “extraordinarily candid with each other”.

The danger with the concept of Psychological Safety is that people assume it means a culture where you shouldn’t challenge people for risk of hurting feelings and their confidence. This is incorrect. It is about a high trust culture where you can be candid – and your candid feedback can be taken on in the constructive manner it was intended. It is about acknowledging that mistakes do happen and are necessary, but equally it should be about openly discussing how to then improve and avoid the mistake next time.

If your company wants to drive a high performance culture then the starting point should be to embrace a culture of Psychological Safety. Only with a company where people can raise their hand and ask questions without fear of reprisal - where they can be safely candid with one another - can continuous improvement and a drive for top performance be possible. This isn’t the only contributing factor to great performance, but it is as close to a silver bullet as you are likely to get.

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