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What is Psychological Safety at Work?

We often learn what something IS by learning what it’s NOT!

Psychological Safety is NOT being nice, agreeing on everything, a license to whinge and whine, oversharing, freedom from conflict, permission to slack off or a guarantee that all your ideas will be applauded.

Psychological Safety IS the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking.

When you have Psychological Safety at work, you’ll feel comfortable speaking up and sharing your concerns and mistakes without fear of being embarrassed, humiliated, ignored or blamed. You’ll also feel comfortable speaking up about your new ideas, and asking questions.

There are many moments to speak up: i.e. expressing concern in a meeting, giving feedback to a colleague, raising a different point of view, sending an extra email to clarify something or asking for help on a project.

Most of us are spontaneously managing our image at work, both consciously and subconsciously, which means we’re constantly assessing whether speaking up is worth the risk.

  • No one wants to look ignorant, so they don’t ask questions
  • No one wants to look incompetent, so they don’t admit weakness or mistake
  • No one wants to look intrusive, so they don’t offer ideas
  • No one wants to look negative, so they don’t critique the status quo

Dr Amy Edmondson’s research and work has however highlighted that Psychological Safety is not a ‘nice to have’ in a workplace, but a ‘must have’.

In this TEDx talk, she speaks to examples of what happens when people err on the side of silence (favoring self- protection and embarrassment avoidance), and explores why finding a voice would have been helpful.

When people don’t speak up:

  • Teams aren’t able to surface issues quickly (so they get stuck in conflict, or stuck solving the wrong problem)
  • The opportunity to course correct is lost, and in some instances, unnecessary problems arise, and in the worst case scenario, disasters happen (leading to loss of life)
  • Important questions that should be asked, just aren’t, so the chance to shape better policies and procedures gets missed
  • The opportunity to learn from mistakes is missed 

In her book, The Fearless Organization, Amy gives many real examples of what happens in organizations where Psychological Safety was low. Amongst them, the 2003 NASA Space Shuttle Columbia catastrophe which would have been avoidable had bosses listened to the concerns raised two weeks earlier by one of the NASA engineers.

Dr Amy Edmondson has come up with a simple (and highly statistically rigorous) way to measure Psychological Safety in a team ~ the Fearless Organization Scan (FOS), in which she asks seven (7) questions.

The FOS is a snapshot measure in time of the Psychological Safety in a team, and opens up hugely valuable conversations and opportunities for growth for the team.

Teams who are invited to take the FOS have a great opportunity to be honest, truthful and candid in their responses, as the feedback is completely anonymous and non-identifiable.

The FOS asks questions to measure the four (4) dimensions of Psychological Safety:

  • Willingness to help and Teaming
  • Attitude to Risk and failure
  • Inclusion and Diversity
  • Open Conversations

The questions asked in the FOS are:

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized

The importance of Psychological Safety in teams and organisations was fully understood and appreciated in 2016, through Google’s famous five year research into what made the best teams.

You may find it helpful to reflect how you would rate the team that you’re working in at the moment on this Performance metric, and reflect on where your opportunities for growth may lie.

Comfort Zone
People generally enjoy working with one another; they’re open with each other but not challenged by the work. Fewer workplaces around the world now fall into this quadrant. There isn’t much learning or innovation – also not much engagement or fulfilment
Learning & High Performance Zone
This is a great learning zone. People can collaborate, learn from each other, and get complex and innovative work done. People are actively learning as they go; and vulnerability and asking for help are normalised 
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 scrolling through social media, or making each others’ lives miserable    
Anxiety Zone
This quadrant worries Amy Edmondson the most, and occurs frequently in work places of today. Employees are anxious about speaking up, and both work quality and workplace safety suffer

Want more help with this?

Book a free Discovery Call with me, where we can explore ways in which the team at Courageous Leadership Hub can support you on your organisation towards a more vulnerable and change-ready culture.


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