Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Written by Charlotte - 21 Mar 2018 Category: HR news

Psychological safety refers to a workplace environment in which people feel safe, assured and able to express themselves.

Psychological safety refers to a workplace environment in which people feel safe, assured and able to express themselves. First defined by Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business school, it is the belief that it’s okay to speak up with concerns, questions and ideas, and admit to mistakes when at work.

Edmondson’s research in hospitals has shown that, contrary to her initial expectations, teams that perform the best actually make the most errors. Further investigation showed that it wasn't that the best teams were making the most errors, but that the best teams were admitting to errors and discussing them more often than other groups did. In other words, what distinguished the best performing teams was psychological safety, which facilitated a "climate of openness.’

Why it matters

Creating a safe working environment in which employees are able to take creative risks and still feel valued -  even if those risks turn into failures - is the key to great teamwork and is conducive to a positive, productive and profitable business environment. Google considers psychological safety to be the most critical trait of successful teams; the recent conclusion of a two-year study found that the highest performing teams at Google all had one thing in common: a sense of psychological safety.

When people don’t feel safe at work,  they are less inclined to take risks and are not accountable for their mistakes. They are more likely to miss opportunities for fear of being reprimanded over any failures  and, eventually, feel resentful towards their employer and disengage from the organisation. Such negativity and reticence is something we most definitely we want to avoid.

How to increase psychological safety in your own workplace

Working through Edmonson’s model,  Laura Delizonna recommends the following steps to establishing psychological safety within your organisation:

1. Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary. Conflicts at work are inevitable. But if mismanaged, they lead to unhealthy competition, criticism and disengagement - highly unhelpful emotions in the workplace. Avoid pointing the finger and approaching conflict head on as this ignites the ‘fight or flight’ response and discourages clear thinking. Instead, collaborate: ask how you can work together to achieve a mutually desired outcome.

2. Speak person to person. Beneath the blame and negativity that drives confrontation are universal needs such as respect, competence, social status, and autonomy. Recognising that everyone experiences these deeper needs and ultimately wants the same outcome helps to promote positive language and behaviours.

3. Anticipate reactions and plan countermoves. Skilfully navigate difficult conversations within the workplace by preparing for possible reactions. If you know there’s a change coming that will have consequences for people, plan your responses to all possible scenarios so that everyone feels listened to and communication channels are kept open and transparent.

4. Replace blame with curiosity. If team members sense that you’re trying to blame them for something, you trigger their fight or flight response: they’ll run terrified from you, helpless and unproductive, or they’ll be difficult to work with, confrontational and defensive. Research shows that blame and criticism escalate conflict which eventually leads to disengagement. Instead of pointing the finger, establish a culture of curiosity. Adopt a learning mindset, knowing you don’t have all the facts.

5. Ask for feedback on delivery. Opening yourself up to constructive criticism by asking for feedback disarms your opponent, illuminates blind spots in communication skills and, most importantly, shows that you too are able to be open and vulnerable in the workplace. Being open and admitting fallibility has been demonstrated to increase trust in leaders.


If you take steps to increase psychological safety within your organisation, it makes sense to measure the effectiveness of these actions and to identify areas of strength and weakness. Conducting a survey is one such way to measure impact and get some perspective on how your team feels.

Creating a climate of openness does not mean you have to trade excellence for errors; encouraging employees to open up and make mistakes allows for full engagement and the space for employees to commit 100%, with no fear - a vital component for teams to achieve their full potential. Some view psychological safety as ‘the glue that binds employee engagement and inclusive leadership.’ If you manage to establish a culture of all three within your organisation, then you’re undoubtedly on the way to success.

About CiviHR

CiviHR is a project to create affordable HR software for non-profit organisations. By developing open source technology the benefits can be shared with non-profits everywhere.


CiviHR is a project to create affordable HR software for non-profit organisations. By developing open source technology the benefits can be shared with non-profits everywhere.