The term "psychological safety" conjures up a warm, fuzzy feeling: the professional equivalent of a big, protective hug. And, in a way, that's exactly what it is. But it's not about being nice; in fact, it's almost the opposite, according to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, a world leader in the field.
Psychological safety gives people the confidence to express their thoughts and admit mistakes, knowing that they won't be shot down. But, in order to be successful, it also requires strong discipline and clear boundaries.
What Is Psychological Safety?
Amy Edmondson (pictured above) has studied psychological safety for more than 20 years, and has collected her findings into dozens of articles and books, including "Extreme Teaming," and "The Fearless Organization."
In my Expert Interview podcast, she explains to me: "It's about being candid. And that means sometimes we'll have to say things to each other that could feel harsh or could feel not nice."
And that's not all. "It's also not a license to whine, or an invitation to sit back and just start saying everything that doesn't work – and it's most certainly not an invitation to relax, to lower the performance expectations," she continues.
"It's really just trying to recognize, and put a name on, the fact that if we aren't open and candid and willing to take interpersonal risks, our organizations will face much bigger risks."
In this clip from my Expert Interview podcast, she explains how, in a medical environment, psychological safety can be a matter of life and death.
More broadly, Edmondson argues that psychological safety is crucial for a successful work environment in any sector.
Psychological Safety for Learning, Innovation and Growth
And this is why psychological safety is so important. Increasingly, organizations need their people to be creative and knowledgeable, so that they can compete well in today's complex markets. That means nurturing an environment where people feel like their voices matter and dynamic conversations can flourish.
According to Edmondson, you create that environment by inviting participation and neutralizing fear. Leaders need to tease out ideas and contributions from all team members. Even if they aren't immediately useful, they might spark a conversation that leads to innovative ideas down the road.
Likewise, if something has gone wrong, people need to feel safe enough to raise it. That way you can deal with it quickly and minimize any damage.
But this freedom can only work if there are clear rules. This is where the boundaries come in.
Boundaries Bring Psychological Safety
"It's almost paradoxical," she says. "If people behave in ways that bully, if they yell at a colleague, if they belittle, if they harass, any of those things that are truly unacceptable behaviors at work, if those go unpunished or unacknowledged, ironically, you've made the workplace less safe, not more."
This applies to failure too.
While she strongly promotes the idea that failure should be discussed (and learned from, where possible), Edmondson believes that failures caused by "blameworthy actions" should be condemned, with the perpetrators sanctioned and even fired if certain rules are breached.
Boundaries need to be clear and unambiguous. Edmondson gives the example of a team member who believes their boss only wants to hear good news. It's not true, but it's what they think and so they self-censor, "artificially setting the boundary far tighter than it needs to be."
Whereas if their boss had been clear about their boundaries – they're very happy to hear bad news, but prefer it to come with solutions – the team would function better.
Psychological Safety Enables Excellence
Edmondson points out that the responsibility for psychological safety rests mainly with managers.
They need to tell people what is and is not acceptable, and should invite everyone to speak up – "be proactive in inquiry," as she puts it. Then they must listen properly, and respond in such a way that inflates rather than deflates motivation and productivity.
Ultimately, though, psychological safety is not the end goal, "even for me," Edmondson reflects. Rather, "it's a means to an end: the goal is excellence."
"The goal is to have people feel great about what they do and to accomplish important work for their constituents. I'm just making the argument that that's darn hard to do if they don't have an environment of psychological safety."
Listen to More of Amy Edmondson...
You can listen to the full 30-minute interview with Amy Edmondson.
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