Psychological Safety at Work

As you scroll down the Excel spreadsheet, your eyes crunch up. You can’t believe what you’re seeing. You run the analysis two, three times, but the figures that should tally don’t match up. It’s obvious you’ve made a mistake. You berate yourself for not having noticed this discrepancy ten days ago, when you performed the analysis and sent the report to your boss. Now, what should you do? Fess up to your boss or remain mum? What if she doesn’t catch it? Then you can avoid the unpleasant interaction. But deep down, you feel uneasy about keeping quiet. If this mistake is not corrected now, the figures for next month will also be off and eventually fingers will point back at you. You take a deep breath and heave yourself to your boss’ cabin. 

A safe workplace 

Whether you feel comfortable speaking up, especially when the tidings aren’t good or pleasant, depends on the culture of your organization. And, a key determinant of that culture is psychological safety. In an article published in The Annual Review of Organizational Psychology & Organizational Behaviour, Amy Edmondson, the world’s leading expert on the topic, and Zhike Lei, state that the construct describes “people’s perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks” at the workplace. Whether employees feel comfortable “sharing information,” making suggestions or generating new ideas is contingent upon workers experiencing psychological safety.  

Pluses of psychological safety 

In their review of the literature on psychological safety, Edmondson and Lei aver that the construct has benefits both at the individual, group and organizational levels. When individuals feel they work in a psychologically safe environment, they experience greater levels of vitality and engagement, which, in turn, fosters their creativity. Further, when employees are motivated to share information in a non-threatening work space, it engenders trust among workers and teams. Additionally, psychological safety is associated with enhanced performance of firms. Importantly, psychological safety also promotes “organizational learning,” especially from failures. 

A healthy relationship with failure 

In her book Right Kind of Wrong, Edmondson argues that psychological safety underpins how firms deal with failure. When workers are overwhelmed, they are more likely to seek assistance, thereby reducing “preventable failures.” Employees are also more likely to point out errors, which can then be fixed. In contrast, if people are scared to report mistakes, then small errors can balloon out of proportion if left unchecked.  

A psychologically safe environment also fosters innovation because people are free to explore and experiment within bounds. Failure is an integral aspect of science as experiments tend to fail around “95% of the time,” says Edmondson. However, these failures are not to be avoided or shunned as they are the “building blocks of discovery.” 

Edmondson and Lei also believe that sharing information may be less efficient in the short term in some instances, but is more optimal in the long run. For example, if you notice that some data regarding client feedback hasn’t been recorded, you may repair the mistake by adding in the necessary information without involving your boss. After all, managers have a zillion other things to attend to. If that error was solely due to your oversight, why should you bother other people with it? But you realize that the form has been designed such that anyone accessing data from it is likely to make the same error. In that case, it’s probably better to let the entire team know in advance. That way, others can avoid the same mistake. Further, if team members agree that it is a significant issue, perhaps, the form can be re-designed. This type of back-and-forth exchange to improve processes and products without blaming or shaming can take place only in an organization that practices psychological safety. 

Speak up & listen up 

Psychological safety is an “emergent property of a group,” and doesn’t depend on whether people are extroverted or introverted, argues Edmondson. People tend to “speak up” based on how they think others in the group might respond. Edmondson and Lei also note that while managers may “create a climate of psychological safety,” the onus of fostering a culture of safety and respect doesn’t lie with bosses alone. Employees also have to “speak up and challenge the status quo.” Of course, managers may acknowledge and commend individuals who ask questions and bring up problems to the fore.  

 About the Author

Aruna Sankaranarayanan is a psychologist & writer. She is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at 

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