Do You Feel Psychologically Safe In Your Workplace?
Let’s assume you are a member of an imaginary team. In the first scene, you are in a team meeting. The whole team is together, but only one person is speaking: Your manager. When a question is addressed, even though you know the answer or have an opinion on the subject, you think at least twice before sharing it: “What if I say something wrong?” or “Am I sure I think/know?”
In the second scene, you realize that your manager or teammate has made a mistake, something has been overlooked. If you have discovered this, how would you react? Is it best to keep your silence? Somehow, it is not directly related to you. Besides, maybe you misunderstood it.
In another scene, the delegation of tasks in the team changes. Now you must do a different job than you were doing previously. The only problem is that you did not understand how to do it, and you are the only one to do it. What would you do? What if you say you did not understand and ask for help?
And the final scene: An important day for you or your family; you are anxious about it. You have difficulty in concentrating on your work and cannot devote yourself to what you are doing. Can you call your manager and ask for permission? Do they show you understanding? Is it best to get a medical report saying you are sick?
How many points would you give out of 10 for your work experience in an environment like this?
How likely are you to achieve successful results in your career?
Would you recommend your company or team to a job seeker you know? Or would you consider changing jobs at the first chance?
In Such An Environment, We Cannot Talk About Psychological Safety!
If we think that voicing our concerns and sharing our opinion with the possibility of saying something wrong will put us in a difficult situation personally and professionally, there is no psychological safety. In such an environment, people cannot ask for help when they need it or cannot show their weakness as humans/ employees. Furthermore, team members and leaders will tend to hide their mistakes and lose the chance to take steps to improve the business for fear of making mistakes.
Development of the Concept of Psychological Safety
In 1999, researcher Amy Edmondson conducted a study on the effect of team communication on error rates with teams of doctors and nurses. The teams’ tasks were detected and tracked at a human error rate, such as giving their patients the wrong medication. As they were collecting data on the mistakes they made, Edmondson observed them for her research question: “Do teams with open communication make fewer mistakes than others?”
When she received the research results, she was shocked because the teams with open communication reported the highest error data. Edmondson then dug into the details and discovered that teams with open communication do not make more mistakes than others, but they do not afraid to talk about their mistakes. While others tend to hide and ignore their errors, teams that communicate openly discuss their mistakes and look for ways to reduce them together. Thus, this situation, which seems like a failure, becomes their advantage over time as it allows them to improve themselves and correct their mistakes. Edmondson calls this discovery “psychological safety” (1).
Then, in 2012, Google conducted “Aristotle” research, focusing on what conditions are necessary to build a perfect team. The concept became famous when it was determined that building an environment of psychological safety is the first of the five elements required to create an excellent team (2).
According to Amy Edmondson, who first defined the concept, an environment of psychological safety is where you feel it is normal and even expected to talk about your concerns, questions, ideas, and mistakes. In such an environment, you can be sure that nobody will question your abilities and knowledge. Also, your status or reputation will not be adversely affected in cases where you share your ideas, voice your concerns, report your mistakes, or need help. In such a team, the leader and the team members are equally human, and it is natural to have human problems. So, you can trust your teammates and your leader. At the point where this vulnerability is acknowledged, open communication can be possible so that team can avoid making or repeating mistakes. Thus, in this way, a more productive working environment, a good employee experience, and a suitable work environment for creating a successful team are provided. On the other hand, a psychologically safe environment is one of the most crucial elements for learning and development. As a result of the study conducted with 51 teams in a manufacturing company, it was revealed that psychological safety was positively related to learning behavior (3).
In a work environment where you can talk about mistakes, there is a space for vulnerability, and curiosity is encouraged, the development will be inevitable as employees focus resources such as time and energy on improving their work and learning.
Does Psychological Safety Exist in Your Workplace?
To understand this, you can evaluate how often some critical phrases are used at work. If the following expressions are used frequently and comfortably in your team or work environment, there is an environment of psychological safety.
- “I made a mistake.”
- “I did not understand what I should do.”
- “I am going through a difficult time in my home/personal life, affecting my work.”
- “I am scared.”
- “I need help.”
- “I do not know.”
- “I do not agree with you.”
- “How can I help you?”
- “What are your concerns?”
(1) Ted Video:
(2) Google Research:
(3) Research on Learning with 51 Teams