Home Main Menu

The power of psychological safety

By Sarah Abramson

Why is it so valuable to create safe team spaces where people can voice opinions and ideas, and be honest about shortcomings? From speaking up before mistakes happen, to escaping from half a mile under the earth’s hardest rock, psychological safety’s impact is far-reaching. Sarah Abramson explores why…

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. The twisted-up feeling in my tummy was getting worse. My hands were hot and prickly. From a quick glance round the room, I could tell I wasn’t the only person feeling awkward.

‘The boss’ had again thrown out an opinion-laden instruction about the upcoming event we were organising. We knew this instruction would cause problems. And worse still, we’d no doubt pick up the blame afterwards for the undesirable results.

But last time I’d had the nerve to venture an opinion that wasn’t quite the same as his, I’d been chewed up and spat out, humiliated in front of other people.

It was horrible. I wasn’t going to put myself through that again.

What is psychological safety?

It was a few months later when I first heard the term ‘psychological safety’. Thankfully by then I’d found myself a new job elsewhere (at Acteon!), now with a team and leaders who not only create a safe space, but positively encourage different ideas and genuinely understand the value of trying new stuff… even if those new ideas don’t always work.

So what is this concept of ‘psychological safety’, and what are its implications?

Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor who coined the term, defines psychological safety as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” [1][2]

My experience in that toe-curling meeting may well be a familiar feeling to you too. Most of us know what it’s like when psychological safety is absent. But it’s helpful to articulate what it means to have it, why it matters, and how we can achieve it.

Four profound benefits of psychological safety

Psychological safety underpins the success of individuals, teams and organisations. Sometimes it’s about getting the best from people, encouraging innovation and diverse thinking. Sometimes it’s as critical as preventing fatalities or saving lives. Consider these four consequential benefits…

1. Mistakes: Embracing helpful ones, avoiding harmful ones

Identifying and preventing errors is of course vital in environments where the costs of mistakes are high. But errors are human, and they happen everywhere. Amy Edmondson’s research has shown that the best way to reduce errors is to enable people to feel secure enough to be open about them when they occur.

In her early research in hospitals, Edmondson stumbled across a fascinating finding: better teams (as scored by surveys) had higher levels of drug administration error in the hospital patient data. Yes, you read that right. Better teams made more mistakes in giving medicine to patients. In fact, almost an exact correlation: the better the team, the more mistakes were reported in the data.

Digging deeper, Edmondson discovered that the better teams weren’t actually making more mistakes; but they were more willing to discuss and report them. A climate of openness allowed them to identify and talk about errors, near-misses and causes, and work on preventing them from being repeated.

By contrast, there are many environments where ‘mistakes’ are not potentially fatal, but where making it ok to own those mistakes is helpful. In fact, many of the most innovative organisations in recent years have adopted a ‘fail-fast’ approach, understanding that mistakes are part of the road to finding better or even ground-breaking solutions.

As James Dyson puts it: “On the road to invention, failures are just problems that have yet to be solved.” Dyson took this to an extreme: in his pursuit of cyclone technology in a vacuum cleaner, he cycled through hundreds of prototypes through a trial-and-error process to arrive at a high-performing solution. [3]

2. Fuelling creativity and innovation

Dyson is a strong believer that an experimental approach should be nurtured from childhood, and that encouraging children to be curious fosters creativity. They need to try out things that don’t work as a vital part of figuring out how what does work.

He says: “Unfortunately, society doesn’t always look kindly on failure. Punishing mistakes doesn’t lead to better solutions or faster results. It stifles invention.”

For this to happen, psychological safety is essential. Without it, people bite their tongues. With it, they let their ideas flow. Innovation thrives when people share new ideas, and particularly when there is varied and diverse thinking in a group.

A dramatic example: inclusivity leads to extreme rescue against the odds

33 men were trapped under half a mile of the hardest rock in the world. There seemed slim chances of survival for this group of Chilean miners stuck in darkness after a mine collapse deep underground in the Atacama Desert on 5 August 2010.

Experts estimated the probability of getting them out alive at less than 1%.

But above them at ground level, a rescue team was bringing together diverse talent intent on saving the 33 lives. The leader of this engineering operation, André Sougarret, recognised they needed to open up to different ideas. He encouraged the team to do things quickly.

The clock was ticking. Sougarret believed that the key was to fail fast and learn fast, testing out multiple ideas in parallel. He kept pushing his growing team, asking them to figure out how they could learn from each failure and use them to drive the next effort.[4]

A brilliant idea came from an unexpected voice. 24-year-old field engineer, Igor Proestakis, came to San José on his own. He identified a little-known hammer technology that could cut through the hard rock quicker than other drills could. Senior engineers Felipe Matthews and Walter Véliz listened to Proestakis, and immediately took his idea to Sougarret.

Proestakis later reflected: “This was probably the most important job of [Sougarret’s] life. Despite my experience and age, he listened to me, asked questions, and gave me a chance.”

The rescue operation pursued multiple solutions at once. After the initial search and experimental phase, they identified three different drilling systems with the best chances of success: Plans A, B, and C. Lining up these plans to run simultaneously created space for an innovative experimental approach in which failure was expected, and which maximised the chances of success.

On 22 August, after 17 days of drilling, the rescue team made contact with the trapped miners. The drilling engineers thought they heard something, but were astonished to find a note taped to the drill bit that had broken through the rock – written in red marker pen, it said: “Estamos bien en el refugio, los 33” (“We are well in the shelter, the 33”).

Pinera holds a note from the trapped Chilean miners.

Chile’s President, Sebastián Piñera, holding the note from Los 33

Over the next 52 days, the three drilling teams worked in parallel to drill a rescue shaft. It was Proestakis’s idea, Plan B, which reached the miners first. And four days later, the last of the 33 miners – their team leader, 54-year-old Luis Urzúa – was hoisted up in the rescue capsule and reunited with his family.

The Chilean mining rescue is a powerful example of how psychological safety fosters innovation by allowing space for ideas that may not work in order to reach breakthrough discoveries.

3. Diversity and diverse thinking

The story of André Sougarret and Igor Proestakis shows something else too: that psychological safety enables greater inclusion and more diverse thinking, leading to better outcomes.

People like Proestakis who lack status and experience, would typically not have been given a seat at the table. But Sougarret’s willingness to listen to diverse voices was what ultimately led to 33 lives being saved, against all the odds.

Moving beyond a tick-box approach to diversity and inclusion, successful organisations understand that diversity is key to bringing together different perspectives, ideas and problem-solving approaches.

People from under-represented groups often find it harder to speak up, or lack opportunities to be heard. They may not be listened to, often overtly excluded, or it could be more subtle – exclusion takes many forms. Exclusion may be due to gender, disability, race, age, culture, religion or something else, but when anybody is excluded there is an opportunity lost. We don't want these people to stay silent, by giving them the psychological safety to speak up, question, bring themselves to the situation without fear, we develop better products, services and experiences (for colleagues and customers).

4. Employee engagement, wellbeing, retention and… happiness

Making sure people are included and listened to promotes their wellbeing and happiness. In turn, more motivated and engaged employees underpin higher team performance, improved retention, lower absenteeism, and better outcomes for organisations.[5][6]

The importance of psychological safety for organisations is becoming increasingly clear. Google’s Aristotle Project in 2015 was a quest to build the perfect team, starting by assessing what factors contributed most to the highest performing teams. The researchers studied around 200 teams over a two-year period, and discovered that what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together.

Psychological safety was the single most important factor.[7]

The Aristotle Project’s lead researcher, Julia Rozovsky, describes the psychological safety she saw in successful teams as enthusiasm for one another’s ideas, joking around and having fun — allowing everyone to feel relaxed and energized.[8]

She observed that much of this dynamic was due to the culture created by the team leader. For example, an engineer in one of the highest performing teams described his team leader as “direct and straightforward, which creates a safe space for you to take risks.” Conversely, another engineer in a team with poorer performance told the researchers that his “team leader has poor emotional control... He panics over small issues and keeps trying to grab control. I would hate to be driving with him being in the passenger seat, because he would keep trying to grab the steering wheel and crash the car.”

Back in the room…

So remember that uncomfortable meeting I was in? I didn’t speak up because I did not feel safe to do so. I feared that voicing an opinion would lead to negative personal consequences, which were more painful than the collective price to be paid for not preventing a problem. I had learned from previous experience that it was not worth the risk.

The consequence for the team was that the event we were organising was not as good as it should have been. There were opportunity costs. And it was one of many similar instances that led to team members, including myself, leaving their jobs.

In the current climate, organisations are struggling to recruit and retain and to steer through difficult economic conditions. They need to nurture the best from their people. The more that leaders can become aware of why psychological safety matters, and equip themselves with simple approaches for creating it, the more they and their organisations will benefit.

Read more: Case study

This case study about a project for Wellcome Trust shows how psychological safety can be fostered across an organisation. We worked with Wellcome on its Code of Conduct and ‘Speak Up’ campaigns, which make a strong connection with Wellcome’s values, particularly trust, with the message: “It’s not just what we do, it’s how we do it that matters.”

Want to share our goodies?

Sign up to our newsletter...

for communications nuggets, behavioural insights, and helpful ideas. All treats and no spam.