Psychological safety at work: what it is, and how to champion it

Why psychological safety is the most common characteristic in successful teams

Psychological safety at work

What it is, and how to champion it

"There’s no team without trust,” - Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google (HBR, 2017)

What is psycological safety?

The Center for Creative Leadership defines psychological safety as: “The belief that you won't be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. ... It's a shared belief held by members of a team that others on the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish you for speaking up.”

It's the most important aspect of successful teams

When Google People Operations (aka HR) wanted to understand what made a Google Team successful, they spent 2 years investigating and conducted 200+ interviews with their employees. In the end, they identified 5 key aspects of a highly successful team. The first on the list? Psychological safety.

The reason for this is quite simple, our brains are wired to identify any potential threats in our environment and respond by putting up barriers. In a workplace, threats can be anything from a boss ridiculing an employee or even a story from a friend about how HR teams aren't trustworthy. Until our brains have seen evidence that we have nothing to fear, we keep these barriers up. This 'fight or flight' mode is very detrimental to our ability to contribute at work, as it prevents us from being creative or taking chances.  

How can you create trusting environments?
  1. Conflict should be an opportunity to work together. If an employee has a perceived loss, it's important to identify ways to move forward in a way that won't trigger defensiveness.
  2. This is a key reason we recommend anonymous chat for teams, employees feel more confident to speak their mind anonymously and test the waters to see what it would be like to speak out with their identity known.
  3. 2. Track psychological safety. To identify areas for improvement or low trust in certain teams, we recommend asking questions in employee surveys like 'Do you feel like you can make admit to making a mistake without retaliation or ridicule?' To get the most results to accurately measure and analyze trends over time, we recommend using a pulse survey so employees can easily answer via a Slack or Teams survey.
  4. 3. If employees feel like they are being blamed, it can unnecessarily escalate the conflict. Instead, if an employee has made a mistake, simply ask them questions that indicate curiosity rather than blame. Questions like, 'In your opinion, what would ideal solutions be in this scenario?'. This sets the stage for collaboration instead of a witch hunt

"People think that psychological safety is only related to mental health, but it is not. It's about feeling you can be yourself and that no one is going to judge you. When people feel like an ‘other’ they're not comfortable being themselves and they don’t bring their whole self to work. They bring what they think people want to see." - Marie Roker-Jones, Co-CEO of Esteem & Diversity Consultant

Sacha Gunaratne

Head of AI & Machine Learning

Sacha specializes in AI & ML algorithms. In more technical words, he does research and development of reinforcement learning (RL) algorithms.