Updated: Dec 20, 2022
Psychological safety has become a growing buzzword in organizational development, thanks in large part to the critical work of Amy Edmondson, who defined the term as a “shared belief that a space is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
What does this mean when we look at our workplace culture? What exactly is interpersonal risk-taking? In our firm, we talk about psychological safety in terms of creating cultures of opportunity and growth. It’s not comfortable, and it’s not about being nice. Far from the culture of toxic positivity pressure to silence concerns, true psychological safety is actually transformative; when it occurs across a team, everyone feels able to learn and grow themselves, and expect that from others. It allows for us to call one another “in,” name concerns, and navigate conflict in transparent, impactful ways.
The Components of Psychological Safety
Based on the work of Timothy Clark, I have defined five aspects of culture that combine to create psychologically safer spaces. Each aspect is not enough on its own; by themselves, these can actually exacerbate power dynamics and reinforce inequity. Though some scholars argue that these occur in stages, I would posit that some organizational cultures may have more of one type of safety than another and that they may not occur in a linear fashion. So what are these components?
Inclusion Safety | This is about recognizing and valuing the wellbeing of individuals in the group. When you feel this type of safety, you know that others in the group care about your happiness, engagement, and wellbeing. You are a valued member of the team.
Learner Safety | This is about feeling able to ask questions, admit mistakes, and express vulnerability. When you feel this type of safety, you can acknowledge and learn from others without feeling personally attacked or worrying about negative repercussions for doing so.
Contributor Safety | This is about feeling like you are able to share your own thoughts, perspectives, and ideas in team discussions. When you feel this type of safety, you believe that your work has meaning and you have a role to play in decision making. You feel heard, valued, and appreciated for your contributions.
Challenger Safety | This is about being able to name problems, raise concerns, and speak up against the current system without fear of negative repercussions or social ostracization. When you feel this type of safety, you feel confident that you can raise difficult issues with others, particularly those in positions of power over you.
Transparency Safety | This is about feeling like you can state observations and ideas candidly and expect to receive the same from others. When you feel this type of safety, you trust that others on your team will share feedback and thoughts with you as well as seek out feedback for themselves. There is an open line of communication across all levels of the group or organization.
You can see how these components need each other. In environments where everyone feels like they can call out each other’s mistakes and problems, but no one feels able to learn from their own errors or admit ignorance, you can fall into a polarizing and threatening culture. Yet inversely, if you only focus on learning and don’t have a culture of transparency or challenger safety, then you will find yourself in an organization continually asking for feedback and somehow mysteriously failing to receive any. In these scenarios, change stagnates, and these cultures struggle to innovate, problem-solve, and adapt.
Assessing Psychological Safety
One of the biggest fallacies managers can fall into is the idea that if they feel safe, others on their team also feel safe. It is important to take some time and care in determining just how psychologically safe others feel in your organization or team. Whether you do this through surveys, assessment tools, or outside consultants, you need to be asking in a way that provides confidentiality. What types of safety are they experiencing? Are there particular departments or positions that report less safety in your organization?
Once you understand the type of safety that is lacking, you can strategically intervene to try to improve these areas. Interventions can include manager training (or replacement if needed), new policies and procedures, or company-wide forums and events.
Some questions to consider once you identify areas of opportunity:
Low inclusion safety: Do you actively listen to the needs of your team members? Are there practices in place for different cultural practices, gender needs? Is the language your company uses inclusive (pronouns, spouse terms, calendars with multi-cultural religious observations/celebrations, etc)? Do you honor or shame vacation time, breaks, and mental health?
Low learner safety: Do managers model their own fallibility and learning? Are practical examples given or is the impression of perfection considered the norm? How are questions handled? Is there a process for professional development and learning? Is it a core value?
Low contributor safety: When are team members brought into decision-making processes? Are they involved in goal setting or mission alignment? How are new ideas treated in the organization? Who gets credit, recognition, or acknowledgment?
Low challenger safety: What happens when someone brings up a problem in the team? Is there a clear process? A discussion? Are there any opportunities built into policies and practices to actively seek out this information, or is actually pretty hard to offer feedback? Is there an active awareness and policy around disrupting power dynamics?
Low transparency safety: Are managers setting the tone for transparency with their team or is there a culture of keeping business decisions private? How transparent are salaries and promotions in your organization? Are people conflict avoidant?
Building Psychological Safety: Creating Cultures of Feedback
There are many strategies you can implement to increase safety on a team, but the most important is how you handle feedback. Many teams (consciously or unconsciously) make it difficult if not impossible for employees to speak up honestly with their own concerns and to hear the concerns of others. This problem is compounded by hierarchy and power dynamics, different cultural norms, and a lack of clarity or trust around the process of feedback.
A culture of feedback is an environment in which individuals speak up and express concerns, offer innovative solutions, and provide opportunities for growth to one another in order to optimize performance. By its very nature, this kind of feedback is both vertical and lateral across an organization; it encourages employees at all levels to seek out and offer feedback and support to one another. A manager should be as open and receptive to hearing suggestions for their own growth as they are providing them to those they oversee. But the key here is “receptive." Feedback cannot be only top-down, it can’t be just a happiness survey, or only once a year. You can’t collect data and not use it.
1. Build multiple avenues and strategies to collect feedback. Particularly in the beginning of changing power dynamics and creating safer spaces for dialogue, offer multiple avenues to provide feedback, some anonymous, some individually in person, some as focus groups. Make it consistent, diverse in method, and ranging in topic. The more ways you ask for information, the more likely you are to get it from all members of the team.
2. Teach all team members how to give and receive feedback. It’s not intuitive; how people give and receive feedback can be deeply entrenched in power and identity. Create a cultural standard as a team for how you should do it, and hold people accountable. Keep in mind people in positions (and with identities) of power are often very bad at receiving feedback, and those who have less power may not feel confident providing feedback. Train all staff so they feel capable of holding the space needed to really hear one another.
3. Managers must take an active role to encourage feedback. As simple as it sounds, make sure the first response for feedback from all managers, even if the person giving it didn’t deliver it well, is to say thank you. To see in every critique a desire to improve the way things are working or to highlight a struggle, often called it a “pain point.” Modeling the behavior you wish to see has to start with those in positions of power.
4. Feedback should be immediate and direct. Eventually, as the team gains confidence in the culture of feedback, team members should speak directly to those they are struggling with, not through an HR representative or manager unless absolutely necessary (as in the context of harassment, hate speech, or violence). Instead, work to establish a culture where feedback is a natural part of meetings and discussions, where it is open and transparent and occurs in the moment.
Integrative Inquiry is a remote-based consulting firm that partners with organizations to help you to deal with this and other kinds of work culture obstacles and disparities. Read through our brochure to learn about what we can offer and why we do the work we do or reach out today.
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