It turns out the so-called "touchy-feely" soft stuff is pretty hard to get around. People working together need psychological safety to succeed. Here's what the research says...
Psychological Safety is the shared belief that it's safe to speak up, ask questions, point out errors, and suggest ideas.
Workplaces are full of interpersonal risk. Suggesting a new idea, giving constructive feedback, talking about job performance, taking a creative detour from the original plan, or sharing information that others on the team might not know --- all require a degree of trust that the act of taking the risk (to share, to experiment) will be supported, and not met with reprisal or punishment.
This feeling of relative safety against being blamed or punished for interpersonal risk-taking is called psychological safety2,3,.
Psychological safety boosts performance by increasing learning.
Learning requires risk. It involves pursuing new information that may run counter to existing perceptions and biases (which can cause learning anxiety). Learning can require experimentation (which may fail), and it may even directly require failure (i.e., learning from mistakes).
Psychological safety has an extremely strong relationship with individual, team, and organizational learning.
Psychological safety reduces learning anxiety, and creates a positive context for experimentation and mistakes, thus facilitating learning and leading to higher-level performance2,3,6,.
Workplaces with high psychological safety are more innovative, adaptive, trusting, and profitable.
Psychological safety is important for a great workplace culture.
Listen to Harvard Business School's Dr. Amy Edmondson share her research on psychologically safe workplaces:
Workplaces low in psychological safety are dominated by fear, blame, and inflexibility.
In workplaces with low psychological safety, people concern themselves most with...
Trying to look good (impression management)
Saying what the boss wants to hear, versus what they actually believe (even to the extent of withholding critical information)
Feeling afraid of being seen as incompetent
More broadly, all of this fear results in pervasive rigidity. Everything—from employee body language to the organization's responses to market forces—looks inflexible and stuck in the same patterns2,3,.
Create psychological safety with inclusive leadership, shared goals, and interpersonal knowledge.
Leader inclusiveness is a major factor in creating psychological safety, because people look to leaders to determine what actions are rewarded and punished in the environment. Leaders have a major impact on defining workplace social norms.
Leaders who welcome feedback and are democratic boost psychological safety. Also, when people feel comfortable with each other and share a collective goal (like a vision and mission), feelings of trust and psychological safety develop1,5.
Carmeli, A., & Gittell, J. H. (2009). High-quality relationships, psychological safety, and learning from failures in work organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30(6), 709–729. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.565
Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350. https://doi.org/10.2307/2666999
Kark, R., & Carmeli, A. (2009). Alive and creating: The mediating role of vitality and aliveness in the relationship between psychological safety and creative work involvement. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30(6), 785–804. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.571
Nembhard, I. M., & Edmondson, A. C. (2006). Making it safe: The effects of leader inclusiveness and professional status on psychological safety and improvement efforts in health care teams. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27(7), 941–966. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.413