4 Steps to building psychological safety

Strategies to strategic risk-taking and forward-thinking creativity
Four smiling people looking at a laptop screen

By Raine St.Claire

Leading or managing through fear is no longer a viable option. In a world marked by uncertainty and interdependence, fear serves neither as a motivator nor as a facilitator of excellence.

In the modern work landscape, the significance of psychological safety within teams has surged, and a recent analysis by Harvard Business School Professor Amy C. Edmondson offers valuable insights into its nurturing.

While benefits like remote work and flexible vacations hold appeal, genuine fulfilment in the post-pandemic professional realm hinges upon psychological safety. Coined by Edmondson during the 1990s, the term "team psychological safety" characterises environments where honesty is anticipated and employees can voice their opinions without apprehension of repercussions. This atmosphere empowers employees to experiment and embrace risk, consequently enhancing team performance. 

The concept gained prominence in 2012 through Google's Project Aristotle, which identified psychological safety as pivotal for thriving teams. Amidst the uncertainties and intricacies induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, this notion gained heightened relevance for organisations. In today's work milieu, Edmondson asserts, “You no longer have the option of leading through fear or managing through fear.”

An abundance of research has delved into the creation of psychologically secure workplaces, culminating in an analysis by Edmondson and Harvard doctoral researcher Derrick P. Bransby, encapsulating insights from 185 research papers. The timing of psychological safety's evolution as a research domain aligns notably with the business landscape's needs. Throughout the pandemic, adaptability, transparency, and candour became paramount for leaders and employees alike. Whether healthcare workers candidly acknowledging errors or employees establishing boundaries amid lockdowns, psychological safety stood as a linchpin.

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The authors present four empirically supported actions for leaders to instil psychological safety among their workforce. A comprehensive grasp of these four dimensions, as explained by Edmondson, can uplift team performance and foster a conducive work culture across industries:

Foster team relationships through everyday tasks

Efficiency thrives on knowledge sharing, teamwork, and consensual decision-making. These dynamics necessitate a certain level of interpersonal comfort. Those feeling psychologically secure perform better in teams, enabling them to exchange information transparently. Productivity itself becomes a catalyst, creating a feedback loop that solidifies team bonds and lays the foundation for psychological safety.

“Uncertainty and interdependence are attributes of most work today. And, therefore, without an ability to be candid, to ask for help, to share mistakes, we won’t get things done,” explains Edmondson. Given that few tasks occur in isolation, trust and camaraderie remain crucial in an era marked by remote work and geographically dispersed teams. For instance, research among hospitality workers in Turkey demonstrated how a psychologically secure setting bolstered performance by facilitating error-based learning. Similarly, such an environment proved particularly advantageous for minorities, amplifying outcomes and performance.



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