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The Key to High-Performing Teams: Psychological Safety

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Jan 18, 2023

For many American workers, the brand name Google has become synonymous with aspirational workplace culture. And there’s data to back up the hype: for years, Google has been at or close to the top in LinkedIn’s internal study1 of the country’s top employers. 

What is it about this particular company that allows it to sit above so many others in culture, engagement, and desirability? It’s not just the comp and the lavish benefits, nor the opportunity to share your “Noogler” status on LinkedIn and show your high school classmates that you’ve arrived. The biggest draw, according to job searchers, is Google’s relentless focus on using data and science to support workplace happiness and to promote high-functioning teams.

In 2015, Google’s People Operations team did their own deep dive study2 to find out which factors are most important for creating these high-performing teams. They were surprised to find out that the #1 most influential factor was not diversity of thought, level of education, or work ethic. Instead it was the dark horse of psychological safety

In this article, we’ll discuss what psychological safety is, why it’s so important (hint: It’s not just about feelings), and we’ll leave with a few “take-home” ideas for how you can increase it in your organization. 

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What is psychological safety?

Harvard Professor Amy C. Edmondson once described psychological safety3 as “the belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation.” In a psychologically safe workplace, employees are more likely to believe statements such as:

  • “I can be my whole, authentic self.”
  • “I can make and admit to mistakes.”
  • “I can voice dissent or criticism respectfully.” 

In psychologically safe environments, not only can people do these things without fear of repercussions, but the culture and leaders consistently model, encourage, and appreciate such behaviors. 

In other words, rather than being penalized for being honest about their opinions and their work performance, people are rewarded for it — even when doing so means that they are going against the grain. 

Why is psychological safety so important to my business?

Many leaders think of psychological safety as supporting diversity and inclusion. This is not wrong. As we move from diversity to inclusion to real belonging, people with diverse viewpoints must be encouraged to share them. It’s not a culture of belonging if only some people are able to speak up. In fact, some research has found that increasing the diversity of teams only yields the expected benefits when those teams are carefully led,4 with psychological safety rising to the top of the list5 of required cultural features. 

But the benefits of psychological safety extend beyond core psychological needs, impacting companies’ productivity and bottom lines. Researchers have identified at least 3 major performance benefits to cultures that are high in psychological safety. 

Psychological safety reduces errors

Companies and teams high in psychological safety make fewer critical mistakes.6 Imagine you’re a nurse. You’re standing in front of a doctor who you believe is about to operate on the wrong side of their patient’s body. You have to make the split-second decision of whether or not to challenge the doctor publicly. 

If you work in a hostile environment — where you may be chastised as insubordinate or even fired — you’ll play it safe. Obviously, this leads to tragic consequences for the patient (and probably for the doctor and hospital). 

If, instead, you find yourself in an environment where speaking up is encouraged and rewarded, you’ll respectfully state your concern and head off that enormous mistake. 

It may surprise you to find out that this example isn’t far from real life. A recent study7 found that staff in a hospital’s radiation oncology department were more likely to report “near misses” — incidents that nearly led to patient harm — if they felt a sense of psychological safety. 

Another recent, high-profile example concerns an ad campaign for the company Balenciaga. In November 2022, they received massive blowback from the public for running ads featuring children posing with stuffed animals dressed in BDSM gear. 

How many people had to view these images and sign off on them before they ran publicly? Out of the numerous employees who worked on the campaign, we can assume that at least some of them must have had concerns. Although we can’t know what happened internally, presumably either nobody spoke up, or their voices were not heard. Either way, this suggests a culture where employee perspectives are not valued or taken seriously.

It takes courage to go against the group. There is real personal risk, and many people avoid it even when risks are low. But when companies encourage dissent and disagreement, they are rewarded with better results.

High-performing teams in any sector are generally more likely to lean on one another to avoid mistakes. And when mistakes do happen, they approach them with curiosity, rather than blame.8 This mindset encourages teams to unpack their missteps, helping to prevent similar mistakes from happening in the future. 

Psychological safety boosts creativity

In addition to avoiding more mistakes, companies and teams that are high in psychological safety are more creative and innovative. Some of this comes down to basic math. Innovation by definition means you’re doing something new. If your team needs to find a new solution to a problem, the more good ideas the team produces, the greater the probability that you’ll hear the best idea. 

If a team leader reacts to “bad” ideas by chastising the person who offered them, others will see this and stop offering their own ideas for fear of humiliation. If instead you encourage everyone to think outside the box and share their own unique ideas, no matter how off-the-wall, you will get more and better ideas. 

Balancing creativity and critique

Psychological safety also supports innovation by helping teams to avoid wasting resources pursuing bad ideas. Suppose a leader comes up with her own idea for solving a problem and tries to drive it forward. But the idea is flawed and doomed to fail, for reasons she has not yet discovered. When people feel safe to speak up and express their concerns, we avoid investing in ideas that would cost time and money but go nowhere. 

You may be thinking that these two points contradict one another. I first said, “don’t criticize others’ ideas.” I then said it saves us time and money when we openly criticize bad ideas. 

In an environment high in psychological safety, it’s all about context. It comes down to nuances in how, when, and why the ideas are criticized. Everyone gets sufficient airtime to express their ideas before anyone weighs in with criticism. When criticism is offered, it is done so in a respectful and sensitive way, and — perhaps most importantly — it’s clear that the critique is driven by the north star of what’s best for the organization. There is a feeling that the team is all in it together, with the shared goal of coming up with the best idea to meet the client’s or company’s needs. Instead of the boss saying, “I’m upset you did not like my idea,” she says, “Thank goodness you said something, or we would have made a big mistake!” 

Note also that this criticism takes place in group sessions where the focus is on the merit of the idea, NOT in backchannel meetings-after-the-meeting, which are often a telltale sign that the culture does not value psychological safety.

Psychological safety increases belonging

Companies high in psychological safety experience a greater sense of belonging, which is crucial for teamwork, productivity, and even employee retention. 

In outstanding organizational cultures, psychological safety is personalized for each employee. There’s a broad culture of acceptance — one that says it’s okay to speak up and admit mistakes. 

There is also an acknowledgement and appreciation of individual employee needs. One person may need to adjust a team roadmap to allow for religious holidays. Another might need to feel that they aren’t a burden when requesting accommodations for their disability. Diversity comes in all forms, and people show up for one another in all kinds of ways. 

In psychologically safe cultures, people truly feel that they are “in it together.” As a result, they pull together harder to achieve their shared goals.  

Belonging can be thought of as a mediator — or a necessary road — to our other two goals of creativity and accuracy. By creating a culture of belonging, where people feel safe to be their whole selves, to make and admit to mistakes, and to voice concerns publicly, leaders can enable the very behaviors that lead to high performance: greater innovation, fewer mistakes, and overall higher productivity.

How leaders can cultivate psychological safety

Hopefully by now you’re on board with the concept of psychological safety as critical for employee experience, diversity and belonging, and company performance. You may be wondering, “What can I do to increase psychological safety in my team or org?” 

Here are some suggestions, in order of importance:

Lead by example

Publicly model, encourage, and reward the behaviors you want. This means showing up as your “whole self” in team meetings and gatherings, and letting your team see you as a person with struggles, preferences, and weaknesses. 

You need to get comfortable with failure and admitting to your mistakes. And when others make a mistake, they must be gracefully forgiven and encouraged to move on. 

Finally, encourage people to share their concerns and criticisms openly. When your colleagues do this effectively, respond with gratitude to let everyone know it’s not just okay — it’s good to speak out when it’s tough to do so.

Restructure your systems

Create structural opportunities for people to speak up.

  • For major decisions, assign colleagues to play devil’s advocate. Praise them for highlighting issues that had not yet been discussed. Do this early in the process, when it’s still easy to change strategy if needed. 
  • Reserve ten minutes of each meeting to brainstorm concerns or potential risks, and really lean into it. If no one voices a concern, offer your own to break the ice. If you can poke a hole in your own idea, even better. 
  • If you are participating in a physical design session (such as a design thinking sprint where people come together to brainstorm improvements for a platform’s UX), ask participants to use "red flag" stickers (whether real or digital) to mark concerns they think the group should explore. 
  • Do a premortem.9 Have your team imagine they’re a couple of years into a future where they took the proposed course of action, and it failed. “Looking back,” they speculate as to the causes of this failure. This flips the social pressure script, so that those who identify the biggest problems are the heroes rather than the squeaky wheels. 

These ideas embody the spirit of behavioral design: If you make the desired behavior easy and rewarding, people will do it. If you make it hard and punishing, they will not.

The onus of interrupting groupthink and challenging the majority of the team should never be put on individual employees. It may feel uncomfortable or even dangerous for many people, especially introverts and people from diverse backgrounds, who ironically may be most likely to have unique perspectives. 

It’s up to leadership to implement processes that make it easier and more rewarding to share overlooked concerns. Anonymous pulse-check surveys and suggestion boxes make it safe and easy for people to voice concerns without fear of retaliation. But if people only feel safe being honest when it’s anonymous, this is a signal that you have work to do to bolster psychological safety.

Keep it real

In some workplace cultures, employees who see faults in an idea decline to speak up because the culture values being friendly and agreeable over making sound business decisions. People tend to get promoted if they’re positive and agreeable, and tend to be penalized if they disagree “too much.” 

In the short term, it may feel better to disincentivize disagreement in this way. It creates the impression of harmony within an organization, and minimizes conflict. 

But in the long term, this pattern impedes real progress. Mistakes are not caught ahead of time, innovation does not happen, and bad ideas are pushed through when they should not be.

Upskill for constructive feedback

Train employees on HOW to speak up constructively. Publically dragging a coworker’s idea over the coals can decrease psychological safety, especially if it’s done in a sarcastic or otherwise toxic way. Raising concerns should never feel like a personal attack. 

Employees should be led to speak up respectfully, constructively, and from a place of curiosity and concern. For instance, when questioning an idea, it can be helpful to point out its positive aspects first, and to make a point of incorporating those benefits into other approaches. The way colleagues communicate criticism can make the difference between a psychologically safe or unsafe environment.

Final words

There is a long historical debate over whether leaders should aspire to exude greater warmth or greater competence.10 Ideally, of course, they should aspire for both. Treating others with respect and compassion does not hinder progress. On the contrary, the research on psychological safety reminds us that when we see our colleagues as humans first, approaching their ideas with warmth and curiosity, we enjoy better ideas, fewer costly mistakes, and higher functioning teams.

References

  1. Top Companies 2022: The 50 best workplaces to grow your career in the U.S. (n.d.). www.linkedin.com.https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/top-companies-2022-50-best-workplaces-grow-your-career-us-/
  2. Rozovsky, J. (2015, November 17). re:Work - the Five Keys to a Successful Google Team. Withgoogle.com.https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/
  3. Edmondson, A., & Mortensen, M. (2021, April 19). What Psychological Safety Looks Like in a Hybrid Workplace. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/04/what-psychological-safety-looks-like-in-a-hybrid-workplace
  4. Newman, L. (2021, September 21). The hidden risk of diversity training, and what you should do about it. WeWhistle. https://www.wewhistle.com/the-hidden-risk-of-diversity-training-and-what-you-should-do-about-it/
  5. Bresman, H., &  Edmondson, A. (2022, March 17). Research: To Excel, Diverse Teams Need Psychological Safety. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/03/research-to-excel-diverse-teams-need-psychological-safety
  6. Christian, M. S., Bradley, J. C., Wallace, J. C., & Burke, M. J. (2009). Workplace safety: A meta-analysis of the roles of person and situation factors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(5), 1103–1127. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0016172
  7. ‌Jung, O. S., Kundu, P., Edmondson, A. C., Hegde, J., Agazaryan, N., Steinberg, M., & Raldow, A. (2021). Resilience vs. Vulnerability: Psychological Safety and Reporting of Near Misses with Varying Proximity to Harm in Radiation Oncology. The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety, 47(1), 15–22. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcjq.2020.09.005
  8. Delizonna, L. (2022, October 19). High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety: Here’s How to Create It. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it
  9. ‌Klein, G., Koller, T., & Lovallo, D. (2020, June 29). Bias busters: Premortems: Being smart at the start. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/bias-busters-premortems-being-smart-at-the-start
  10. Zenger, J. (2018, October 4). Should Leaders Aspire To Warmth Or Competence? Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackzenger/2018/10/04/should-leaders-aspire-to-warmth-or-competence/?sh=424b5787eded

About the Author

Lauren Newman headshot

Laurel C Newman, Ph.D.

Laurel Newman is a social psychologist and an applied behavioral scientist. She began her career as a psychology professor and department chair at Fontbonne University, leaving academia in 2018 to help create a behavioral science function at Maritz. Laurel consults, conducts research, and delivers corporate behavioral science curricula. She writes articles and books on topics such as employee engagement and how to build a behavioral science function within an organization. Laurel has a Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from Washington University in St. Louis. She works in the Experience Center of Expertise at Edward Jones and is co-founder and advisor to the employee loyalty startup Whistle Systems.

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