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Psychological Safety – Don’t let it become just another workplace buzzword.

Psychological Safety is an important concept. Through her great book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth and her other writings and presentations, Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson has brought the term Psychological Safety into our common lexicon. Unfortunately, like so many other important concepts, some people have made it a buzzword in their organizations and throw the term around claiming they believe in the concept, then violate all the principles or simply misuse or misapply the concept.

What is Psychological Safety? In Fearless Organizations Amy Edmondson explains, “Psychological safety is broadly defined as a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves. More specifically, when people have psychological safety at work, they feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. They are confident that they can speak up and won’t be humiliated, ignored, or blamed. They know they can ask questions when they are unsure about something. They tend to trust and respect their colleagues.”

Psychological Safety is not an environment where people are coddled and not held accountable. Edmondson explains, “Psychological safety is not immunity from consequences, nor is it a state of high self-regard. In psychologically safe workplaces, people know they might fail, they might receive performance feedback that says they’re not meeting expectations, and they might lose their jobs due to changes in the industry environment or even to a lack of competence in their role.”

Psychological Safety is also not a “politically correct” environment where people are afraid to have hard conversations about important topics. In her Psychology Today article Psychological Safety and The Free Exchange of Ideas Edmondson clarifies the misperception that Psychological Safety is about political correctness. “Psychological safety is not the same as a safe space. It is not the same as a trigger-free space. It is not a space where you will always feel comfortable and not have your views challenged. It is almost the opposite. It’s a brave space, really—an environment in which people do not feel they have to hold back with a concern or question for fear of recrimination or humiliation. And thus, it’s often an environment of vigorous and challenging give-and-take. The deep irony here is that the felt pressure to enforce a PC culture appears to have diminished, not enhanced, psychological safety.”

In a post relating to his latest book Think Again, best selling author and organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote about the importance of Psychological Safety, “It’s not psychological safety if people can only voice what you want to hear. The goal is not to be comfortable. It’s to create a climate where people can speak up without fear. Psychological Safety begins with admitting our own mistakes and welcoming criticism from others.” He goes on to explain that when you have Psychological Safety in your organization people:

    • See mistakes as opportunities to learn.
    • Are willing to take risks and fail.
    • Are willing to speak their minds in meetings.
    • Openly share their struggles.
    • Have trust in their teammates and supervisors.
    • Are willing to stick their neck out.

The concept of Psychological Safety aligns with the concepts of Growth Mindset research that Stanford professor Carol Dweck writes about in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and the importance of Creating Trusting Teams in the Infinite Game philosophy Simon Sinek writes and talks about so eloquently. It also fits very well with The No Assholes Rule that Stanford professor Robert Sutton has written about.

An organization that has a culture of Psychological Safety is one where people are comfortable reporting mistakes, continually striving to improve themselves and the organization, are willing to simply run the experiment and pursue Better Practices and Next Practices. It is a culture where people are willing to accept responsibility and welcome accountability. It is a culture that fosters an environment of inclusion and belonging. It is a culture that breaks down the silos and pushes decision making to the lowest tactical level.

Amy Edmondson also reminds us that it’s not enough for organizations to simply hire talent. “If leaders want to unleash individual and collective talent, they must foster a psychologically safe climate where employees feel free to contribute ideas, share information, and report mistakes.”

If Psychological Safety has already become a buzzword that has people crossing their arms, closing their minds and rolling their eyes, then stop using the term and focus on the culture. The term is not the critical element; building and sustaining a culture that embraces the principles, practices, and philosophies is. As a leader you need to focus on developing a culture of psychological safety in your team, group or area of responsibility. The return on the investment will be well worth the effort.

Remember that leadership is a choice and a journey and it starts with you. Choose well, keep learning and enjoy the journey. The Dare to Be Great: Strategies for Creating a Culture of Leading online workshop was created for aspiring leaders and frontline leaders to help you on your leadership journey.

Brian Willis