Psychological safety represents the perception of safety in the workplace which affects the crucial outcomes of performance, employee engagement, learning, and organizational change (Edmondson and Lei, 2014). By reflecting the amount of personal risks an employee can take and the trust in the organizational structure, system, and employees, psychological safety assumes a critical importance as a moderator between how people perceive their organization and how willing they are to share personal resources in collaborative ventures. Therefore, every professional - whether a manager, team leader, or a graduate - needs to understand this concept and apply its principles to become more effective.
Psychological safety was first described by Schein and Bennis (1965) as a critical component that made employees feel secure and more likely to change their behaviour for meeting organizational challenges. It is vital that psychological safety is not confused with trust, which is limited to an interpersonal level and an antecedent of psychological safety.
However, it was another seminal author in this subject, Kahn (1990) who brought the term back in conversations when he stressed that psychological safety affects how employees express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally.
One critical component of psychological safety is the belief of being given the benefit of doubt if any mistakes are made. It is this trust in the organization that moderates the relationship between employees’ willingness to take risks.
Considering that this risk taking behaviour is needed for creativity and innovation, it is no wonder that psychological safety and capital are significant moderators between high performance work systems and creativity (Agarwal and Farndale, 2017).
How does psychological safety work?
Edmondson and Lei (2014) identified a series of relationships between psychological safety and other important parameters of performance.
At individual level, psychological safety leads to higher creativity
Leadership behaviour affects psychological safety which, in turn, build confidence and results in voice, engagement, and knowledge sharing behaviours, ultimately, having an outcome in creativity.
On the other hand, the response to proactive behaviours builds trust in the system which is also an important contributor to the desirable behaviours.
At organizational level, psychological safety leads to good performance and learning
At organizational level, psychological safety is influenced by Human Resources practices, quality of social environment, and process innovations which influence the organizational performance and learning by fostering knowledge sharing.
At group level, psychological safety leads to better performance, decision quality, and innovation
At the group level, psychological safety has been linked to a number of antecedents from organizational context, team characteristics and leadership, conflict resolution, and other aspects of group interaction and formation, all of which affect how well team members trust each other and are ready to engage in information sharing which leads to the crucial outcomes of good performance, decision quality, and innovation.
What are the benefits of managing psychological safety?
The practical uses of psychological safety can be gauged from the number of human resource outcomes it affects. Considering that this variable is linked to performance, employee engagement, higher satisfaction, creativity, and knowledge sharing, organizations are advised to pay more heed in recruiting applicants that have a higher predisposition to have personality traits that are considered to be linked to positive psychological safety (Frazier et al., 2017).
The main benefits of acknowledging and managing this construct remain the avoidance of negative outcomes of stress and team conflict while leveraging on the benefits of more positive work attitudes, team and individual learning, and performance (Newman, Donohue and Eva, 2017).
The main benefit of psychological safety is that it creates a self-fulfilling cycle.
Psychological safety leads to more positive team behaviours like the sharing of information (Gong et al., 2012), and exploratory (development of new capabilities) and exploitative (refinement of existing abilities) learning.
Individuals in high psychologically safe organizations engage in proactive behaviours of seeking and sharing information and building more trustful relationships with their supervisors and colleagues (Gong et al., 2012).
These team and individual behaviours, in turn, help in creating a much more trusting and respectful organizational climate, which again leads to higher psychological safety.
What are the limitations of managing psychological safety?
Considering the nature of the construct, it is rare that psychological safety is associated with any negative outcomes. In one such study, the researchers commented that teams that are rated high on psychological safety have a higher probability of engaging in unethical behaviour (Pearsall and Ellis, 2011).
Exploring deeper, it becomes evident that when teams perceive their organizational climate to be non-threatening, they choose those options that allow them to meet their objectives in the most beneficial manner without considering the ethicality of the choice.
Another consideration in psychological safety is with regard to the autonomy accorded to teams which manifests in lower levels of monitoring and consequently, recognition (Langfred, 2004). Such autonomous teams can actually perform lower than expectations again showing that psychological safety may be one of those constructs where too much of a good thing (TMGT) effect applies.
How can you improve psychological safety?
Considering the importance of psychological safety, it is no wonder that professionals would like to improve it. There are several interventions that can build psychological safety in employees ranging from educational exercises which include simulation to practice voicing of concerns, debriefing leaders, video presentations to show the importance of speaking up, case studies and scenarios to show how others have benefitted from voice and knowledge sharing, and workshops (O’Donovan and McAuliffe, 2020).
There are other interventions too like role plays, sensitivity training, and inclusive leadership (Zhao, Ahmed and Faraz, 2020). However, the factors that can contribute to improving psychological safety are dependent on the organizational and team context.
How can you measure psychological safety?
Many measures have been employed to assess psychological safety. These range from capturing the immediate impressions of team members about working in a team to surveys and interviews that enquire into the factors that make people feel safe (Edmondson, Kramer and Cook, 2004).
Researchers have also used observation and group feedback to study this construct (O’Donovan and McAuliffe, 2020). Therefore, enough tools are available for professionals to assess their teams’ psychological safety and the choice will depend on the context of why it is being measured.
Psychological safety denotes the level of confidence that employees have in their organizational climate. It affects several key relationships with work attitudes, determines individual and organizational performance, and brings more creativity, knowledge sharing, and learning in the organization.
Critical appraisal of psychological safety: Solidity Rating 4
The field of research for psychological safety has a number of meta analytics studies especially in the last twenty years. Enough research has been conducted at the individual and team levels while organizational studies may be rare but can be attributed to the nature of the construct.
The only area of study that merits more research is the negative consequences of psychological safety which can show how it plays the role of a moderator and perhaps an accelerator in some relationships. Accordingly, this topic is awarded a solidity rating of 4.
Key recommendations for professionals
Psychological safety is an important moderator in key work attitudes and outcomes and should, hence be acknowledged in managerial decisions.
Matching personalities who are more likely to perceive the organization or team as psychologically safe to jobs can benefit managers.
Too safe an organizational climate can lead to unethical behaviour so monitoring this construct is advisable.
References and further reading
Agarwal, P. and Farndale, E. (2017) ‘High‐performance work systems and creativity implementation: the role of psychological capital and psychological safety’, Human Resource Management Journal, 27(3), pp. 440–458.
Edmondson, A. C., Kramer, R. M. and Cook, K. S. (2004) ‘Psychological safety, trust, and learning in organizations: A group-level lens’, Trust and distrust in organizations: Dilemmas and approaches, 12, pp. 239–272.
Edmondson, A. C. and Lei, Z. (2014) ‘Psychological safety: The history, renaissance, and future of an interpersonal construct’, Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav., 1(1), pp. 23–43.
Frazier, M. L. et al. (2017) ‘Psychological safety: A meta‐analytic review and extension’, Personnel Psychology, 70(1), pp. 113–165.
Gong, Y. et al. (2012) ‘Unfolding the proactive process for creativity: Integration of the employee proactivity, information exchange, and psychological safety perspectives’, Journal of management, 38(5), pp. 1611–1633.
Kahn, W. A. (1990) ‘Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work’, Academy of management journal, 33(4), pp. 692–724.
Langfred, C. W. (2004) ‘Too much of a good thing? Negative effects of high trust and individual autonomy in self-managing teams’, Academy of management journal, 47(3), pp. 385–399.
Newman, A., Donohue, R. and Eva, N. (2017) ‘Psychological safety: A systematic review of the literature’, Human Resource Management Review, 27(3), pp. 521–535.
O’Donovan, R. and McAuliffe, E. (2020) ‘A systematic review exploring the content and outcomes of interventions to improve psychological safety, speaking up and voice behaviour’, BMC health services research, 20(1), pp. 1–11.
Pearsall, M. J. and Ellis, A. P. (2011) ‘Thick as thieves: the effects of ethical orientation and psychological safety on unethical team behavior.’, Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(2), p. 401.
Schein, E. H. and Bennis, W. G. (1965) Personal and organizational change through group methods: The laboratory approach. Wiley New York.
Zhao, F., Ahmed, F. and Faraz, N. A. (2020) ‘Caring for the caregiver during COVID-19 outbreak: Does inclusive leadership improve psychological safety and curb psychological distress? A cross-sectional study’, International journal of nursing studies, 110, p. 103725.
Sumbul is a freelance academic writer with a PhD in Human Resource Management. She has several research publications in the areas of organizational behavior, management, statistics, business environment, and Sustainability. She has also authored a textbook on Human Resource Management. Her passions include travelling, sampling different cuisines, and being a life-long learner.