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Leadership Development

What Is Psychological Safety?


Why Psychological Safety Matters and How to Create It

How many of you have been in a conversation or a meeting and heard the term "psychological safety" used recently? Maybe you nodded your head in the moment, but inwardly questioned whether you even know what in the world it means.

You are not alone! Let us see if we can help shed some light on it for you.

As the concept of psychological safety has increased in popularity, many interpretations and definitions have arisen, but one of the most often quoted definitions of psychological safety comes from Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

When I think about what risk-taking means to me—speaking up with ideas, voicing questions or concerns, or making mistakes, I realize at the very heart of those actions is one thing—vulnerability. As Dr. Brene Brown says, vulnerability simply means uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It’s putting ourselves out there with no guarantee that we won’t suffer in some way because of it. And because of that, it’s a courageous act.

But just how courageous will we be in the workplace? Much of that depends on how high we perceive the level of psychological safety to be. So, let’s dig a little deeper into that.

At FlashPoint, we have great respect for the research and work of Dr. Timothy Clark, author of The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety. He defines psychological safety as “an environment of rewarded vulnerability.”

When we work in an environment that is welcoming of our vulnerability (asking questions, learning and failing, and challenging the status quo, for example), we feel more inclined to continue to do those things. In other words, when we put ourselves out there, and our vulnerability is met positively with no fear of repercussions, we will more readily bring our whole selves, energy, and effort to our work. We feel no reason to hide or hold back.

An environment of rewarded vulnerability fuels our willingness to voice our thoughts and opinions in a way that moves the team or organization forward. Additionally, when we feel valued for our input and contributions, we have more organizational loyalty. So, at the end of the day, a high level of psychological safety helps us to retain our talent.

“In the 21st century, high psychological safety will increasingly become a term of employment, and organizations that don’t supply it will bleed out their top talent.” – Dr. Timothy Clark

Sadly, many of us work on teams where psychological safety doesn’t exist. If you look around your work environment and see that Bob got chewed out by your boss for making a mistake when he tried something new (an act of vulnerability), likely you are going to take note that you should probably just stick to what you know best and keep your head down.

If you observe that when Kate respectfully voiced a contrary opinion in a meeting, she was glared at and then immediately shut down, you are more likely to just keep your opinions to yourself.

If, when Nathan brought an honest mistake forward and later had a project taken away from him because of it, you might feel you need to hide or cover up any future mistakes.

Each of these examples ends up costing employees their ability to be honest and bring their best forward, which in turn, costs the company.

“When psychological safety is high, people take more ownership and release more discretionary effort, resulting in higher velocity learning and problem solving. When it’s low, people don’t muscle through the fear. Instead, they shut down, self-censor and redirect their energy toward risk management, pain avoidance, and self-preservation.” - Dr. Timothy Clark

It’s important to note that a lack of psychological safety doesn’t always present as the radical “the boss just berated me in front of my team” moments. It can also be more subtle:

  • It might look like consistently asking the same people for their opinions in a meeting and not others.
  • It might look like not supporting someone who’s in the learning process with the necessary tools and encouragement they need.
  • It might look like always going first with our opinions in a meeting and not creating space for people to share.
  • It might look like being dismissive of a piece of feedback or rolling our eyes at a comment in a meeting.

The bottom line is that psychological safety is something we all should be consistently fostering on our teams. We don’t just achieve a psychologically safe environment and then clap our hands together and say "all done"! Psychological safety is perishable and must be intentionally sustained.

At FlashPoint, we are working on this too. We don’t have it down perfectly by any means, but are committed to modeling what high psychological safety can look like on our own team. It’s vital to us that we first lead ourselves in this area, so that we can successfully help our clients do the same. We welcome you to journey alongside us as we discover the type of culture that psychological safety can create.

*Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams, Amy Edmondson, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Jun., 1999)

Photo by Ash from Modern Afflatus on Unsplash

Learn More About FlashPoint's Psychological Safety Offerings


Amy Savage

Amy Savage is an expert at facilitating transformational leadership experiences and coaching leaders through a research-based framework that enables growth.