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Human resources

Psycho­logical safety in the workplace - good for people, good for business

April 4, 2022

Take a look around you. What do you see? A disengaged and passive group of people with their mouths zipped shut? Or a group of people comfortable speaking up, asking questions, and brainstorming to find ways of improving the company? There’s a difference between the two groups, and the difference is this: One group feels a sense of psychological safety at work, and one group doesn’t.

But what is psychological safety, anyway? And how can you create a psychologically safe environment for your team?

What is psychological safety?

According to Dr. Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School who coined the term, psychological safety is, “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”

In a work context, it means you don’t have to worry about being blamed or made fun of for sharing ideas, asking questions, expressing doubts, identifying problems or pointing out mistakes. It means you don’t have to be afraid of finger-pointing, rejection or losing your job. It means you know you’ll be listened to and respected, and that your opinion will be taken into consideration, regardless of your status or seniority.1

The importance of psychological safety at work

Dr. Edmondson believes that people need permission to “voice half-finished thoughts, ask questions out of left field, and brainstorm out loud in order to create a culture that truly innovates.” In addition to key elements like trust, active listening and consideration, psychological safety is a key factor when it comes to creativity and learning. It gives people the freedom to express themselves, to share ideas and be understood—to question and improve upon the status quo. When people don’t feel free to do these kinds of things, innovation dries up and employee wellness can be jeopardized. It doesn’t mean that everybody’s nice all the time—it means that the people on the team feel free to express themselves, knowing that their team respects and supports them, and vice versa.2

Julie Séguin, a disability prevention and management specialist for Desjardins Insurance2, sums it up like this: 

“In a work environment where people feel safe, where you have trust and openness, everyone will feel like they can rise to their full potential and that they don’t have to hold back. And that trust is reflected back on the team and the organization, where it drives success at all levels.”

5 ways your organization can promote psychological safety3

1. Make it your number one priority

Talk about the importance of psychological safety at work. Tie it into your team’s wellbeing, as well as their ability to work together efficiently and to innovate. Adopt the behaviours you want to see and lay the groundwork by demonstrating empathy at work.

2. Give everyone a voice

Be genuinely curious and show you value honesty. Be openminded and empathetic when someone is brave enough to question the status quo. Be open to questions—not just answers.

3. Develop a framework for how problems and mistakes are handled

Embrace experimentation and reasonable risk taking. Encourage people to learn from failure and disappointment. Share the lessons you’ve learned from your own mistakes—it’s a great way to stimulate innovation.

4. Make room for new ideas (even if they seem a little bonkers!)

Before you push back on a new idea, take a step back yourself. Do you only have time for ideas that have been proven to work? Or are you willing take a chance on something a little more out-of-the-box—even if the idea’s only half-baked? Being open to new ways of doing things will only encourage your team to innovate.

5. Embrace constructive dialogue

Show that you value listening, dialogue, respect, feedback and even differences of opinion. Make sure that discussions are productive. Talk to your team about how to share concerns and opinions and how to communicate with each other when a process or project isn’t working.

Everyone has an impact on the team’s psychological safety

While employers play a key role in shaping team culture, each individual team member also contributes to building a healthy environment, by their attitude and openness to dialogue and constructive debate.

How can you measure psychological safety at work?

Here are some things team members can do to create a psychologically safe space:4

  • Ask open-ended questions and pay attention not just to what the speaker is saying, but also to the feelings and values they’re expressing
  • Share in the team’s failures as well as its successes, by recognizing that mistakes are an opportunity to learn
  • Be honest, open and direct when expressing appreciation or disap­pointment
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help or to jump in when a colleague asks for help
  • Encourage the members of the team and express gratitude for them and what they do

If you want to find out how psychologically safe your workforce feels, just ask. For example, you could meet with your employees and present them with different scenarios, asking them how they or their colleagues would react.5

These questions are just a starting point. They’re designed to spark conversation and get people thinking. They’re also an opportunity to broach topics that are integral to your employees’ well-being: autonomy, responsibility, accountability, commitment and the ability to make decisions.

Tips for managers and team leaders

You could also conduct an anonymous survey or a workshop and ask:

  • Is it easy for you to ask your teammates for help?
  • Do you feel safe taking risks?
  • Are differences of opinion easily accepted?
  • If you make a mistake, is it held against you?
  • How do you react when you or your team is faced with a problem?
  • Are you able to put your skills and abilities to work and does your team value your contribution?

Although you want to ensure the psychological safety of your employees, you have to look after your own well-being too. Stay in touch with people in your own network so you can get help if you need it. Professional relationships between managers aren’t limited to discussions focused on company issues.

Finally, if all of this seems like too much, remember that your employees’ psychological safety reflects the climate and culture of your organization. Cultural change is hard. It can seem overwhelming. So don’t beat yourself up—take the time you need to make change happen! Even baby steps can lead to major, lasting change.

1. EDMONDSON, Amy C. The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, Hoboken, Wiley, 2018.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

Desjardins Insurance refers to Desjardins Financial Security Life Assurance Company.