Psychological safety: the art of encouraging teams to be open

Written by: Andrew Hill
Published on: 17 Mar 2023

Encouraging team at work
© FT Montage; Dreamstime; Getty Images

It is said to be the secret to finding and nurturing new music at one of the world’s biggest record companies. It is the key to encouraging a sovereign wealth fund’s asset managers to make more contrarian bets. It is a central plank in a multinational bank’s policy of inclusion and belonging.

“Psychological safety” — ending, or at least reducing, interpersonal fear in teams and increasing candour — has become a mantra for many executives seeking an edge over rivals in innovation, performance, and staff attraction and retention.

But it can be a short step from today’s organisational phenomenon to yesterday’s management fad. Intensifying interest in psychological safety has come with a chaser of scepticism and concern. Even its best-known advocate, Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson, says she fears her original findings are sometimes being “watered down” and “used to mean anything”.

Edmondson stumbled over the concept as a doctoral student in the 1990s, studying the impact of teamwork on medical errors. Surveys found a strong correlation between error rates and team effectiveness. Contrary to her prediction, though, better hospital teams seemed to be making more mistakes than weaker ones. Further research confirmed good teams in fact reported more errors, because they talked more openly about mistakes. The positive effects of psychological safety held well beyond healthcare, further studies found.

Wider interest was ignited by a 2016 New York Times article about a separate study at Google that found psychological safety was easily the most important ingredient in the technology company’s best teams. Edmondson’s 2018 book The Fearless Organization added further fuel. The pandemic and the parallel focus on staff wellbeing drove the idea deeper into the corporate vocabulary.

As Edmondson acknowledges, other academics had previously identified the importance of open challenge within teams. Elements of the idea were also present already in high-performing organisations. In manufacturing, Toyota had its Andon cord, which any worker could pull to halt the vehicle production line and deal with a problem. In aviation, crew resource management had cut the number of aircraft crashes by reducing deference and stimulating more openness in cockpit communication.

Amy Edmondson
Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson stumbled over the concept as a doctoral student in the 1990s © Bryce Vickmark/FT

Tom Geraghty, founder of Psych Safety, which aims to disseminate work and advice on the topic, points to the direct link to traditional health and safety policies, which have moved from a “Safety I” approach, trying to prevent things going wrong, to a “Safety II” quest to make more things go right, more often.

"Once you create psychological safety, it becomes a lot less comfortable because people are . . . are maybe making some observations about your work that you don’t like"
Scott Chambers, managing partner, Caerus Change

Error prevention is only one way in which psychological safety helps improve performance, according to its fans. Nicolai Tangen, chief executive of Norway’s sovereign wealth fund Norges Bank Investment Management, is using the concept to make fund managers feel bolder about taking on more risk, for instance.

Psychological safety is a core part of a new training programme Warner Music is rolling out to its 1,500 people managers. Members of its all-important A&R (artist and repertoire) teams, for example, are encouraged to offer frank feedback about each other’s hits and flops, a process known as “retrospectives” or “retro-ing”.

Tanuj Kapilashrami, group head of human resources at Standard Chartered, describes psychological safety as a “key enabler” of inclusion and belonging across the banking group.

Edmondson says the pandemic encouraged interest in her research. It also uncovered dysfunction, even in teams that seemed to have a healthy working environment. At one US healthcare system, the pandemic “exposed some tensions and potential resentments” about who was sent home and who was not. Hospital staff reassigned to unfamiliar roles during the emergency found that “when you suddenly really had to learn something new . . . it was hard to ask for help”.

The emphasis on staff wellbeing in lockdown also reinforced a common misperception that psychological safety involves creating a “safe space”. Edmondson says that in a climate of candid feedback, people sometimes ask, “How can anything that hurts me or causes me pain in any way [be good]?” But true psychological safety involves being “unafraid to disagree with the boss and point out others’ mistakes because we care more about the customer, the patient, the quality of the work, than about our ego in the moment”.

Sharyn Clarkson-Kent, head of learning and development at Abri, a UK housing association, has found that the 200 managers who have been going through training in psychological safety are happy to speak up. But they remain wary about hurting others’ feelings. “We’re a kind and caring organisation with kind and caring colleagues,” she says. “Sometimes that can lead us to not want to upset people and not challenge as much as we should.”

Scott Chambers, managing partner of consultancy Caerus Change, which advises companies on applying Edmondson’s insights, says that far from forming a comfort zone, “Once you create psychological safety, it becomes a lot less comfortable because people are actually talking to each other directly about how they feel and they are maybe making some observations about your work that you don’t like.”

The misunderstanding that most vexes Edmondson is “the equation of psychological safety with job security”. She says, “When people mix up the two things, they are at risk of inadvertently polluting psychological safety with the message that it’s time to hunker down and not raise concerns, and not disagree with the boss.” Such timidity could be dangerous at a time of economic uncertainty when frankness about the challenges ahead is particularly important.

“The reality is that this is a complicated, messy area,” she explains. “The fearless organisation is an aspiration, it isn’t a reality.” When individuals are quick to take offence, it is difficult to have “high-quality conversations without causing unnecessary harm and without stepping into traps that you were completely unaware of”.

Critics believe the concept is often misapplied. Executive coach and leadership development consultant Paul Berry, of Human Performance Science, says many leaders are implementing a “sanitised version of feedback” which is “banal and non-threatening” to their own position. He also wonders whether psychological safety is “unequivocally desirable in all contexts”. 

Even leaders committed to the idea, such as Tangen, admit it was hard to hear direct criticism at first, “but you quickly realise that constructive feedback shows that you truly care for people”. Psychological safety “isn’t a panacea for people to be able to say what they are thinking without consequences”, says Jo Daly, responsible for learning and development at Warner Music. “It’s about understanding that we have a responsibility to listen to one another, to identify truths and speak them well but speak them kindly.”

All agree achieving the goal requires constant managerial attention. Kapilashrami monitors how psychological safety works in practice, drawing on data from employee surveys. She looks, for instance, at the number of anonymous complaints lodged by StanChart staff and asks, “Does that mean people feel empowered [to complain] but don’t have the confidence to say things to their leader?”

As for Edmondson, she sometimes sounds disconcerted at how this one element of her wider work on good teams has taken hold. Other factors are crucial, too, she says, such as motivation, good learning strategies, and the balance of advocacy and inquiry that leads to better conversations. “Part of my angst . . . is I always think of this [psychological safety] as just one little thing,” she says. “[It’s] an important thing but it isn’t a silver bullet.”

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