In this guest post, Tessa Bergmans, MSHR, PHR, SHRM-CP & Dr. Anne Julia Hagen, founders of B&H Consulting, share practical tips on how to foster psychological safety at work, drawing insights from Amy Edmondson’s books “The Fearless Organization” (2019) and “Right Kind of Wrong” (2023).
Our innate need to be safe – not just physically, but psychologically – transcends cultures, languages and generations. Psychological safety is the cornerstone of an engaged and innovative work environment. When employees feel safe to express their thoughts, share their ideas, and take calculated risks, it fosters a culture of continuous improvement and learning, ultimately enhancing productivity and positively affecting the organization’s overall performance.
Understanding Psychological Safety
Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School, coined the term psychological safety in the workplace. She defines it as an environment where employees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and concerns without fear of humiliation or retaliation. Edmondson has conducted extensive research on psychological safety and its relationship to “intelligent failure.” Intelligent failures, or the “right kinds of wrong,” are not about making careless mistakes, but about making calculated risks, encouraging employees to push the boundaries of their capabilities and knowledge to drive innovation and improvement. They happen in novel territory, offer opportunities for progress, and provide valuable insights.
In the year since Edmondson coined the term, there has been additional compelling research that supports the pivotal role of psychological safety, such as:
Google's Project Aristotle
This study identified psychological safety as the critical element in successful teams. Google found that teams thriving in psychological safety, where members feel safe taking risks and speaking up, excelled significantly.
Meta-Analysis on Psychological Safety
Published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, this meta-analysis linked higher psychological safety to increased voice, creativity, task performance, and employee well-being. Conversely, lower psychological safety correlated with elevated stress and reduced job satisfaction.
Research by Gallup
Gallup's study showcased the impact of psychological safety on employee engagement, job satisfaction, and organizational success. Employees in psychologically safe environments were more engaged and comfortable sharing ideas and concerns.
10 Tips for Cultivating Psychological Safety
Lead with Vulnerability
Leaders play a pivotal role in creating an environment of psychological safety. By leading with vulnerability, they set the tone for openness and learning. Share your experiences, including failures, and discuss what you learned from them. This encourages employees to do the same, knowing that it’s acceptable to make mistakes when they are committed to learning from them.
Foster a culture of curiosity where asking questions and seeking information is encouraged. Amy Edmondson highlights that curiosity is a crucial element of psychological safety. Encourage employees to explore and be inquisitive, which can lead to breakthrough innovations.
Constructive feedback is essential for growth and improvement. Make it a norm for employees to give and receive feedback. Constructive criticism should be seen as an opportunity for growth rather than a threat to one’s self-esteem. Edmondson’s research shows that regular feedback is crucial in creating a safe environment for taking risks.
Define Clear Boundaries
While psychological safety encourages open communication, defining the boundaries of acceptable behavior is essential. Discuss what constitutes respectful communication and set expectations for teamwork. This clarity ensures that all employees understand the rules of engagement.
Celebrate Efforts, Not Just Success
Shift the focus from solely celebrating successful outcomes to recognizing and appreciating the effort put into any project. This fosters a culture of acknowledging hard work, risk-taking, and learning rather than just rewarding final results.
Promote a mindset that views experiments and innovative projects as learning opportunities. Edmondson’s concept of intelligent failure involves calculated risks necessary for growth. Encourage employees to experiment and explore new ideas, even if they result in setbacks.
Develop Learning Rituals
Create rituals or routines that emphasize learning from both successes and failures. Regular retrospectives and debriefs following projects can extract valuable lessons and promote a culture of continuous improvement.
Support Employee Well-Being
Psychological safety isn’t limited to work-related issues – it supports employees’ personal well-being, both mentally and emotionally. Provide resources, counseling, and programs demonstrating a commitment to their holistic health.
Inclusive workplaces are more likely to have higher levels of psychological safety. Ensure diversity and equality in the workplace, and make every employee feel valued, regardless of their background.
Regularly assess the state of psychological safety in your organization through surveys, feedback sessions, or interviews. Use this data to identify areas for improvement and make the necessary adjustments.
Fostering psychological safety at work is a dynamic process that needs to be nurtured by your leaders and ingrained in your organizational culture. When employees feel safe expressing their ideas, asking questions, and taking calculated risks, it leads to innovation and continuous improvement. Encouraging a culture of vulnerability, embracing curiosity, and celebrating effort over success are essential elements of this journey.
By leveraging these tips, you can create a work environment where employees feel safe, heard, and empowered to bring their best to the table.
Bergmans & Hagen Consulting is a pioneering team of women leaders spearheaded by co-founders Tessa Bergmans, MSHR, PHR, SHRM-CP & Dr. Anne Julia Hagen. Their mission is to transform organizations into thriving hubs of high performance through innovative & sustainable workplace practices and an unwavering commitment to people. Rooted in deep HR, organizational culture, and cross-cultural expertise, guided by passion, they forge a culture where people are the heart of every endeavor.
If you’d like to design a roadmap and corresponding programs to cultivate psychological safety to drive a culture of learning, growth, and innovation, please contact the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.