Individuals interacting, demonstrating psychological safety
5-Second summary
  • Psychologically safe work environments allow team members to feel that they can safely take calculated risks without fear of repercussions.
  • A lack of psychological safety may deter people from speaking up about mistakes, knowledge gaps, or potential problems.
  • When working remotely, you can promote psychological safety by being intentional about scheduling one-on-one meetings, asking open-ended questions, modeling boundaries, and setting expectations for video meetings. 

On the journey to success, how your team members feel about their work environment may be just as important as the skills they bring to the table. When employees know they won’t get penalized for asking questions, taking risks, or admitting mistakes, they can focus on doing the work that can move an organization forward, as our own Senior Qualitative Researcher Dr. Mahreen Khan just discussed in her recent post on team dynamics. 

On the flipside, a lack of psychological safety can create obvious barriers to innovation.

“It turns out that no one wakes up in the morning and jumps out of bed because they can’t wait to get to work [to be made to feel] ignorant, incompetent, intrusive, or negative,” says Harvard researcher Amy Edmondson, who coined the term.

So how do you foster that sense of psychological safety? And more importantly for today’s teams, how do you do it when you’re all working in separate locations and interacting through video calls and message boards? 

What is psychological safety? 

Psychological safety is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking, as explained by Edmondson in her 1999 research in Administrative Science Quarterly

Edmondson coined the term in the late ’90s after researching medication errors in hospitals. What she found was that the teams with the fewest errors weren’t the ones with the most experience or the highest standards. They were the teams that had open environments where they actively talked about mistakes and worked together to find new ways to reduce them. Edmondson called that a “psychologically safe” environment. 

In a psychologically safe work culture, no one is shamed for making a mistake or asking a question. You won’t get punished for disagreeing with the boss’s idea or suggesting a new one that doesn’t work out. You’re free to make mistakes in the interest of learning.

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What are the elements of psychological safety?

In her original research, Edmondson identified five behaviors present in teams that exhibited psychological safety. She also included exact quotes from the team members she studied that displayed those behaviors. We’ll include an example of each here, because they offer a powerful illustration of how these behaviors may look in the workplace.

Behavior #1: seeking or giving feedback

Example from team lead to team: “Am I missing the mark with how to proceed? Is there anything you can add?” 

Behavior #2: making changes and improvements

Example from team member: “Every three months, we decide we need to improve how we get our information. We look for better ways to do something, and we make changes.”

Behavior #3: obtaining or providing help or expertise 

Example from finance team member working cross functionally: “I’ve learned a lot about marketing a product — about how and why we make decisions.”

Behavior #4: experimenting

Example from team member: “There have been a lot of iterations. It’s like reducing a sauce by half. It’s a more flavorful sauce, a more complex group of ingredients, but the end result is simpler. We made it easier to use… by continually challenging ourselves to find what is essential.” 

Behavior #5: engaging in constructive conflict or confrontation

Example from team lead describing an effective team member: “They bring conflict up directly. They don’t let it fester.”

All of these behaviors ensure team members that they’re in a safe environment for speaking up and being candid. The team’s shared goals are more important than one person’s ego or attachment to a specific idea.

Why is psychological safety important? 

“Everytime we withhold, we rob ourselves and our colleagues of small moments of learning,” Edmondson said in a 2019 Tedx talk about psychological safety. “And we don’t innovate. We don’t come up with new ideas. We are so busy managing impressions that we don’t contribute to creating a better organization.”

Edmondson notes that people are likely to remain silent out of fear that they might be seen as ignorant, negative, weak, or abrasive. In the worst case scenario, a psychologically damaging workplace makes people afraid to speak up — even to reveal critical, life-and-death mistakes like faulty design in a plane engine or incorrect medication dosages. 

Even if a situation isn’t life threatening, the daily toll of this negativity can add up. The employee doesn’t clarify because they don’t want to reveal their lack of knowledge. The nurse doesn’t question the doctor’s prescription because the doctor previously made a snide remark about her competence. The new manager doesn’t raise concerns about a product roll-out because he’s the newest person on the team. 

How does leadership style affect psychological safety? 

As you might imagine, an authoritative leadership style is not the most conducive to creating psychological safety. In a recent study, McKinsey and Company looked at whether different leadership styles foster an environment of psychological safety.

They found that consultative and supportive leadership styles promote psychological safety, while an authoritative style has the opposite effect. 

A challenging leadership style — encouraging team members to do more than they think they can — can also promote psychological safety, but only after the leader has already developed a positive team climate (through consultative and supportive leadership). This can be an extremely effective combination. When a leader frequently exhibited consultative and supportive leadership, as well as challenging leadership, 72% of respondents reported a positive team environment. That’s in comparison to only 27% of respondents reporting a positive team environment when leaders infrequently offered consultation or support. 

How do you create psychological safety in remote teams? 

The same behaviors that encourage psychological safety in in-person teams can be used in remote teams — inviting experimentation, asking for feedback, and welcoming respectful conflict. 

However, you may have to be more intentional about building psychological safety when you’re not in each other’s presence. Here are some ways to do that.

1. Schedule more frequent one-on-one meetings

“With remote teams, we don’t have those serendipitous encounters,” says Rebecca Morgan, a Silicon Valley management development consultant with over 40 years of experience. “We don’t have as many opportunities to just say, ‘How’s it going?’ The manager has to be more proactive.”

Morgan recommends being more intentional about having one-on-one meetings with team members, and increasing the number of meetings, if necessary. Even if the chats are shorter, having that consistent check-in creates more opportunities for feedback or voicing concerns. 

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2. Ask open-ended questions

In her own study of psychological safety, Morgan spoke with dozens of executives in Silicon Valley about what they were doing to promote psychologically safe work environments. One of the most instructive stories for virtual teams came from an executive who asked one of their employees a broad question in a check-in meeting: “So, how’s it going?”

This was at the height of the pandemic, and the employee shared that they were facing the challenge of having three kids at home trying to homeschool, with two working parents, and only three devices. The manager responded by offering to let them borrow extra iPads the organization had stored in a closet. “You don’t know unless you ask,” says Morgan. 

3. Maintain and model boundaries

Virtual work environments can create a toxic, always-on mentality — if the boss sends an email at 9:00 p.m. on a Friday night, you better answer it by 10:00 p.m. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Edmondson writes about how the blurring between work and life requires leaders to take team member’s personal lives into account when they’re making scheduling decisions.

Employees need to know that they can say, “Hey, I’m with my kids after 5:00 p.m.,” or “I take care of my ill mother on Wednesdays,” and they won’t be penalized for not being available 24/7. 

4. Set expectations for video meetings 

In most conference room meetings, you wouldn’t just pull out your computer and start working on something else. But this type of behavior is common in video meetings. Disengagement by meeting attendees reduces the feeling of connection and inclusivity. A speaker may question whether someone is disengaged because of their comments. 

Set working agreements with your team about meeting participation and conduct. (Use this play from the Atlassian playbook to lay the groundwork for expectations around different work processes.) If on-camera engagement is going to be the default, make sure people are aware in advance and model that practice yourself.

Morgan also recommends that leaders ask for input from everyone during virtual meetings. “I find that some of the best ideas come out of the more reserved people.” 

It starts with you

Whether you have an in-person, remote or hybrid work environment, creating psychological safety requires more than saying it’s important. Modeling is critical, says Morgan. “If you talk about how important vulnerability is, but you’re never vulnerable or people get punished for being vulnerable, then it’s just lip service.”

What does psychological safety mean, anyway?