Psychological safety substantially contributes to team effectiveness, learning, employee retention, and—most critically—better decisions and better performance.
One of the driving forces of workplace trauma is the lack of psychological safety. Perhaps the best way to explain psychological safety is through the circle of safety—an idea proposed by author Simon Sinek. Leaders who create a circle of safety develop a work environment in which people can work at their natural best. Through this circle of safety, leaders nurture a positive work culture where employees feel safe to collaborate and develop a sense of belonging. This circle of safety is what gives birth to innovation, growth, and ultimately success for both the company and the employee. Innovation requires risk, experimentation, and failure, but if an employee fears they might lose their job or their place in the work community when they take a risk and fail, then chances are they will not take risks, leading to a lack of success for the company and the employee.
According to Dr. Maria Montessori, children are only going to explore their world and talents when they feel safe. In the Montessori theory, the prepared environment principle allows the child to learn from adults through a classroom setting filled with activities that allow freedom of movement and choice. However, the environment must be safe, and children must feel they are free to construct and explore. That same type of environment is required for a child to grow up to be the best version of themselves—one that is judgement and shame-free.
To ensure psychological safety, leaders have 2 responsibilities. First, they need to decide who should be included in their circle of safety. For example, when hiring, employees should be chosen to enhance the culture of the company, those who can be trusted to share and support the company’s values. Second, they need to make sure the circle they create expands to protect the safety of the most junior member of the company.
The strongest companies are those with the biggest circle of safety. Weak companies have a circle of safety that extends only to individuals in the executive suite. In other words, when the company fails to meet financial metrics, they first sacrifice the low-level managers to keep themselves safe. With an expanded circle of safety, junior staff feel equally safe, invest their energy in work, trust their co-workers and managers, and cooperate against external threats. When the circle is expanded, the leadership sends a message that in times of adversity we are all in this together. It also sends a message that we will not sacrifice people for financial gain, regardless of the difficulty of the external threat or competition.
When the circle is not extended to protect junior employees, they shift their energy from innovating and cooperating to self-preservation, and ultimately, valuable employees will leave the company. In other words, as a leader, you cannot demand trust, innovation, and cooperation, but you can create a culture that enhances all 3.
A psychologically safe workplace means waking up every day inspired to show up at our natural best, feeling safe to share our unique perspectives, to risk taking changes and innovating, to speak up, to disagree openly, and to raise concerns without fear of negative repercussions or pressure to sugarcoat bad news. Psychological safety nurtures an environment in which people feel encouraged to share creative ideas without fear of personal judgment or stepping on toes. In this kind of environment, it feels safe to share feedback with others, including negative upward feedback to leaders about where improvements or changes are needed. It’s OK to admit mistakes, to be vulnerable, and to speak truth to power. When psychological safety is present in the workplace or at home, it creates a more innovative, stronger community.
Since the term was coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson in 1999, the benefits of psychological safety in the workplace have been well established. According to one McKinsey survey, an overwhelming 89% of employee respondents said they believe that psychological safety in the workplace is essential.1
Psychological safety doesn’t just help people feel good at work, although it does that. It doesn’t just help foster a more diverse and inclusive work environment, although it does that as well. The impact of psychological safety extends far beyond the soft stuff: it substantially contributes to team effectiveness, learning, employee retention, and—most critically—better decisions and better performance.
The importance of psychological safety can be best explained through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a psychological theory of motivation proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943. His theory states that there are 5 categories of human needs that determine individual behavior: physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs.2
Maslow believed that individuals are born with a desire to become self-actualized, to become all they can be in life. For that to happen, humans need their basic needs met first. If we look at these hierarchal needs in the context of working in a dysfunctional workplace, we realize that these personnel don’t feel safe to bring their natural best to everyday work. Maslow revealed that before we can pursue fulfilling relationships with others or feel whole and accomplished, we must first have our basic survival needs met.2 Survival is the most basic drive for human beings, and if they don’t feel safe and their physical needs are not met, they will be incapable of establishing healthy relationships and creating a fulfilling life at work. When these needs are not met, humans have physical and emotional health problems.
Unfortunately, psychological safety is not a given nor it the norm in most teams. According to a survey conducted by McKinsey & Company, behaviors that ensure psychological safety are few and far between in leadership teams and organizations more broadly.1
It’s clear that psychological safety is the key determining factor in setting employers up for success, but many companies don’t know how to go about implementing psychology safety in the company culture. Below are 3 ways to approach it: