Psychological Safety at Work: What It Is, How to Build It

It’s all about creating a space where people can take risks and be themselves.

Written by Jeff Rumage
Published on Jun. 25, 2024
Psychological Safety at Work: What It Is, How to Build It
Image: Shutterstock

Psychological safety is a team’s shared belief that they can suggest ideas, raise concerns, ask questions, offer feedback or make mistakes without fear of punishment or humiliation. In a psychologically safe team, employees don’t have to worry about managing impressions because everyone respects each other’s unique perspective.

Psychological Safety Definition

Psychological safety is a term that refers to an environment where people feel comfortable sharing ideas, raising concerns, asking for help or admitting to mistakes without fear of negative consequences.

The term was first coined in 1954 by psychologist Carl Rogers, and MIT professors Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis were the first to study its importance in organizational psychology. Most of our current understanding of psychological safety is shaped by the research of Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson.

 

What Is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is when teams feel that it is not risky to share their thoughts, flag problems, point out blindspots or offer new ideas. As a result, team members feel like their voice matters and are comfortable being themselves at work.

In other words, “it’s when management is creating an environment that not only allows for the safe sharing of ideas, but they invite it, promote it and celebrate it,” Annie Rosencrans, director of people and culture at HiBob, told Built In.

That said, psychological safety isn’t all about being comfortable. Raising concerns and sharing dissenting opinions is often an uncomfortable — but healthy — aspect of a psychologically safe work environment.

“It’s not about always agreeing,” Minette Norman, a leadership consultant and co-author of The Psychological Safety Playbook, told Built In. “It’s actually hearing all perspectives — even having debate and argument — but in a respectful way.”

 

What Does Psychological Safety Look Like at Work? 

Psychologically safe teams feel comfortable collaborating and debating ideas, recognizing that each person brings a unique, valuable perspective that is worthy of consideration. They don’t have to worry about anyone — whether a manager or a fellow colleague — undermining their efforts, dismissing their ideas or excluding them from group conversations.

In a psychologically safe environment, team members will not be afraid to: 

  • make mistakes
  • raise difficult issues
  • take calculated risks
  • ask questions
  • ask for help
  • be themselves

“Everyone understands that we’re working towards a common goal — that we’re all in this together, and we have one another’s back,” Norman said.

 

What Does a Lack of Psychological Safety Look Like?

In a psychologically unsafe work environment, you may find team members who:

  • follow orders without sharing ideas for improvement
  • feel like their perspective doesn’t matter due to a history of being dismissed
  • avoid giving feedback
  • don’t ask for help when they need it
  • only air their grievances privately
  • play it safe because they fear embarrassment

The problem with such an environment is that “you often miss something really important, because people don’t feel that their idea is going to be welcome,” Norman said.

Related Reading What Is DEIB?

 

Why Is Psychological Safety at Work Important?

Psychological safety was “far and away the most important” dynamic in a high-functioning team, according to a multi-year study of more than 180 teams at Google. The study, code-named Project Aristotle, found that psychological safety was the underpinning of other important dynamics like dependability, structure and clarity, meaning and impact.

To put it another way, psychological safety is not a perk; it’s a baseline necessity for driving inclusion, engagement and innovation in a workplace.

Leads to Better Decision-Making

When employees feel empowered to share their perspectives, they can shine a light on a leader’s blind spots, detect a potential risk in strategy or identify a more effective approach.

Drives More Creativity and Innovation

Teams that have the psychological safety to share their ideas will be able to brainstorm more creative solutions. And because mistakes are seen as learning opportunities, they will also take bigger swings that could spur innovation and distinguish the company from its competitors.

“If people have great ideas but are afraid to share them, you’re not going to get those wild solutions that you might not otherwise think of,” Norman said.

Increases Engagement

When employees feel like their perspective matters, they are more likely to be engaged. Because they are made to feel like an integral part of the team, they are more invested in their work and more motivated to deliver business results.

Results in Higher Retention

When employees feel supported for being themselves, they are more likely to stay. A 2024 study showed this correlation was particularly strong among employees from underrepresented groups. 

Related ReadingEmotional Intelligence in the Workplace, Explained

 

How to Build a Culture Around Psychological Safety at Work

Psychological safety is a group experience that is dependent on the actions of leaders, frontline managers and employees. And like many elements of company culture, psychological safety starts at the top.

“If it’s not role-modeled by your most senior executive leadership, then it’s very hard for it to be possible or even embraced within the rest of the organization,” Jenna Eichberg, chief people officer at AlertMedia, told Built In. 

Here are some actions company leaders can take to build psychological safety in their organization.

1. Encourage Input

Leaders should actively invite feedback and encourage dissenting opinions, then listen with curiosity and thank those who were brave enough to share their perspective. If someone disagrees or offers constructive criticism, Norman said, it’s important for leaders to not let their defensive instincts take over.

“I’ve seen it happen so often where leaders feel like they have to have all the answers, then when someone challenges them, they don’t listen or they get defensive and shut them down,” Norman said. “That is exactly the opposite of creating psychological safety because you’re shutting down important voices that need to be heard.” 

Leaders may need to adjust meeting structures to welcome more voices into the conversation. To prevent the same people from dominating the conversation, Norman suggests setting rules of engagement, like a no-interruption rule or limiting employees from speaking twice until everyone has spoken once.

2. Embrace Failure

Companies should encourage employees not only to take risks but to get comfortable with discussing failure. 

Through her research of team dynamics in hospitals, Edmondson found that high-functioning medical teams tended to have a higher rate of medication errors — not because of low performance, but because they were more likely to report and discuss their errors.

When failure is discussed openly, teams are more likely to learn from their mistakes and take calculated risks that could spur innovation.

“The only way that we can progress is if we challenge the status quo,” Rosencrans said. “If leaders don’t enable and empower their people to take risks and speak up … the company is going to fall behind.”

Discussing failure is already common in some professions. Software engineers, for example, hold blameless post-mortem discussions to discuss what went wrong so they can avoid making the same mistake again. 

Leaders can encourage team members to share their mistakes by talking about their own miscalculations and what they’ve learned from them. At AlertMedia, for example, Eichberg’s HR team celebrates its wins along with its mistakes in its year-end recaps.

3. Listen to Employee Feedback

Leaders at all levels of the organization should also welcome feedback about issues beyond those discussed in team meetings. They should make it clear that their door is always open to discuss personal issues, team dynamics or other concerns on their mind.

Many companies allow employees to submit feedback anonymously. When leaders receive this feedback, they should address it constructively without trying to find out where it came from. If additional detail about the complaint is needed, Rosencrans said it might be helpful to bring in a trusted third-party who might be able to make employees feel psychologically safe enough to share their concerns.

4. Lead With Inclusion

Psychological safety and inclusion are interlinked. Companies can’t create an inclusive culture without psychological safety, and employees won’t feel psychologically safe unless the environment is inclusive.

“Inclusion is about feeling appreciated and seen for who you are and having the same opportunities as others,” Norman said. “You don’t get to that if you don’t feel that you can safely show up as yourself and bring your unique perspective.”

Employees will be more likely to bring their whole self to work if the company celebrates diversity and creates a safe space for all types of people. Leaders can create an inclusive culture by using inclusive language, providing sensitivity training and celebrating diversity through Pride month, Juneteenth and other holidays. 

AlertMedia, for example, hosts a monthly “bagels and banter” event to discuss DEIB topics like how to be an effective ally.

“If organizations aren’t creating those safe spaces for people to be able to talk about some of those things or to celebrate those dimensions of them,” Eichberg said, “it is going to impact their psychological safety.”

5. Build Relationships

Leaders can’t create psychological safety in a day; they have to earn it through their actions over time. If coworkers see that a leader is open to feedback and doesn’t overreact to criticism, then they are more likely to be honest during difficult moments.

“I think it shows up in a series of interactions and moments that people not just experience themselves, but observe or hear from their peers, that gives them the confidence that it is a safe environment,” Eichberg said.

It’s common for employees to get nervous about a conversation with HR, for example, but Eichberg said they wouldn’t have that same level of anxiety if HR was there to celebrate their work anniversary or to support them when a loved one is in the hospital.

“Those moments are personal, deep moments where you’re building trust, where you’re building a relationship,” Eichberg said. “In the hardest times, when it’s more difficult, they’ve seen how you show up in all those different moments, and that uncertainty isn’t there because they know you’re a human.”

Frequently Asked Questions

Psychological safety is when employees feel comfortable to share ideas, raise concerns, offer constructive feedback or admit to mistakes. They feel comfortable being themselves at work, and they aren’t afraid to take risks.

 

Companies can maintain psychological safety by soliciting and listening to input from multiple perspectives, openly discussing mistakes and creating an inclusive work environment.
 

An example of poor psychological safety is an employee not pointing out a mistake or oversight made by their manager. If a nurse notices that a doctor prescribed an unusual medication, they might opt to keep quiet instead of double-checking to see if the doctor intended to prescribe that medicine.

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