Let’s start with a rather typical vignette of a recently hired executive who has joined a company going through a takeover. He knows something looks risky but, because he is not yet part of the team and does not want to create a bad first impression, he keeps silent.

Unfortunately, the above illustrates what happens too often in the world. People are more focused on impression management. People tend to avoid looking:

  1. Ignorant by not asking questions;
  2. Incompetent by not admitting mistakes or weaknesses;
  3. Intrusive by not offering ideas; or
  4. Negative by not critiquing the status quo.

By doing the above, we rob ourselves and our colleagues of small moments of learning, which reduces the opportunities for innovation.

According to Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School who first identified the concept of psychological safety in work teams in 1999, psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.

Edmondson stumbled upon this concept quite by accident. She was conducting research looking at the question “Do better hospital teams make fewer human-related medication errors?” She used a team effectiveness survey in conjunction with the number of human-related drug errors over 1,000 days. The results were the exact opposite of what had been expected. The better performing teams made more mistakes.

When thinking of reasons to explain this puzzle, Edmondson hypothesised that the teams were not making more mistakes but were simply more willing to discuss them.

In order to prove this, Edmondson sent a researcher to study the teams with no idea of the teams’ error rates or effectiveness. He found that the most significant differences between the teams were their willingness and ability to talk about errors. The better teams had a climate of openness that allowed them to report mistakes which, in turn, led them to work together to find ways of reducing the errors.

Since then, the research has piled on, showing that psychological safety can make, not just teams but, entire organisations perform better.

A study at Google investigated the factors contributing to team effectiveness. The researchers found that what really mattered was less about who is on the team and more about how the team worked together. Psychological safety was listed as the number one key to team effectiveness out of a list of five.

References:

Edmondson, A. (2014). Building a psychologically safe workplace [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8

Groysberg, B., & Baden, K.C. (2019). Case study: When two leaders on the senior team hate each other. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/01/case-study-when-two-leaders-on-the-senior-team-hate-each-other

The New York Times. (2016). What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html

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