It’s a concept that has exploded in popularity in recent years; managers are increasingly realising and implementing measures in the workplace to encourage greater psychological safety.
Research, after all, points to the fact that psychologically safe work environments—where people feel comfortable enough to take interpersonal risks—enjoy greater amounts of information sharing, innovativeness, and shared trust among team members.
Google’s Project Aristotle findings on the subject—that psychological safety is the greatest predictor of high team performance—are of particular interest. According to Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google, success in the modern workplace “hinges on the ability to take risks and be vulnerable in front of peers.”
Indeed, the more psychologically safe people feel, the more willing and unafraid they’ll be take the kind of calculated risks that can spark new innovations. Yet, as with most relatively new-fangled and popular terms, misconceptions abound about what psychological safety in the workplace actually entails. Here are three such myths.
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Admittedly, the word “safety” undoubtedly conveys a sense of feeling removed from threats. This, in turn, might give rise to the misconception that psychologically safe environments are ones where people agree on everything all the time, in the name of forced nicety and politeness. It’s the idea that psychological safety is about knowing that your ideas won’t be contested and challenged by others.
In reality, though, team members who feel psychologically safe operate in the exact opposite way. They feel unafraid of social judgment from their peers when they provide contrary opinions, go against the norm, give constructive criticism, or ask difficult questions.
In other words, psychologically safe environments don’t make people censor themselves. Instead, it encourages the kind of honest intra-team social interactions that lead to greater team effectiveness and responsiveness in the short and long run.
Complacency and the entitlement mentality often come down to a sense of feeling untouchable and completely insulated from negative repercussions. Consequently, such people often act recklessly or carelessly at work, in ways that compromise individual and team performance.
Conversely, when people feel psychologically safe at work, they’re highly attuned to the kind of mutual interdependence that makes great teamwork possible. Each team member recognises that they’re each expected to contribute to and engage with one another’s work as much as possible; since they trust one another, they don’t take their positions or each other for granted.
So while they’re not reckless about decision-making and problem-solving at work, their efforts aren’t crippled by risk-averse attitudes or the fear of failure either, both of which are critical for experimentation and innovation.
Psychological safety doesn’t create free-for-all environments that sacrifice results-oriented-ness and accountability just to make sure everyone gets along. Instead, according to Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor who coined the term in 1999, it’s the opposite; psychological safety is actually “conducive to setting ambitious goals and working towards them together.”
Workplaces that help employees thrive have both have high psychological safety and high performance standards. This is what Edmondson calls “the learning zone.” Here, people:
Ultimately, it gives rise to a workplace culture that is extremely collaborative and therefore highly conducive toward innovation.