Whether team members feel psychologically safe has a strong impact on the team’s performance, it forms the basis for innovation, motivation, commitment, and creativity.

Part 2: Psychological Safety

What is psychological safety?

Psychological safety is a state in which opinions and ideas can be shared without blame and hostility. The idea of psychological safety goes back to Harvard behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson. She defined “psychological safety in the team” as “a shared belief among team members that the team is safe to take interpersonal risks.”

Creating psychological safety is teamwork. Everyone contributes to a fear-free atmosphere and constructive and respectful cooperation. And thus contributes to well-being in everyday working life, to less stress and better health – at work as well as in private life.

A mentally safe environment does not arise by itself. It also doesn’t happen overnight. But: Together you can build a culture of trust in the team, in which all team members express their opinions openly without fearing negative consequences. The more psychological safety, the better teams or individual employees can face difficult tasks. Because an atmosphere in which the ideas and actions of all are valued promotes commitment and innovative spirit as well as learning and further development in the team. And thus increases effectiveness.

Psychological safety in the team means that everyone can express their opinion openly and without hesitation. All team members have the possibility of an equal share of speaking time, i.e. different perspectives are taken into account regardless of status. A team with psychological security shows an atmosphere characterized by social empathy and mutual understanding. Psychological safety promotes solution-oriented thinking, as it becomes possible to learn from mistakes instead of looking for culprits. And everyone in the team is valued with their individual strengths and recognized as a whole person with their strengths and weaknesses.

But how do psychological security and trust differ? Trust is an elementary component of psychological safety in teams. It can only be developed through trusting relationships among team members.

Another important prerequisite for psychological safety is emotional intelligence and empathy. Between these two aspects – trust and empathy – there is of course an interaction, without empathy it becomes difficult to build trust. Emotional intelligence means that I can perceive my own emotions and those of others, regulate my own emotions and respond to the emotions of others. An important competence that increases emotional intelligence in the team is the recognition and articulation of emotions. Emotional granularity including a broad emotional vocabulary can be practiced and deepened well in team check-ins.

Psychological safety in teams is characterized by a feedback and error culture that is conducive to learning Here, too, there is an interaction with trusting relationships because trust is an important basis for innovation and creativity. In sociology, this is referred to as an investment strategy, i.e. it is only through trust that the investment in the relationship is worthwhile by bringing in creative and innovative ideas.

Another pillar of psychological safety in teams is the appreciation of diversity, i.e. acknowledging and appreciating differences in the team. This includes considering different perspectives (cognitive diversity) and enduring differences of opinion. Living diversity is not easy in reality.

What is it not?

Psychological safety is not an end in itself but forms the basis for performance and commitment. A team with psychological security is not a pure feel-good team. It’s not about being nice. If the focus is only on well-being, psychological safety is misunderstood, and we have pseudo-psychological security. Pseudo-psychological teams are a risk because members do not have the courage to point out mistakes to each other. There are numerous examples throughout history of how this has led to disasters (from nuclear reactor accidents to spaceship crashes). Psychological safety does not mean freedom from conflict, but on the contrary a space in which conflicts and mistakes can be openly addressed, but without questioning the person himself. An atmosphere of psychological safety also does not mean that all ideas are accepted. The matter can be discussed hard. Psychological safety does not mean compromising performance standards. On the contrary, psychological safety allows an increase in performance in the team.

“Psychological safety is not about being nice. – It’s about giving honest feedback, openly admitting mistakes and learning from each other.” [Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School]

Trust and psychological safety are not new

In psychology and sociology, trust and psychological safety have been studied for decades. First approaches can be found with Warren Bennis and Edgar Schein in the sixties, further deepening by William Kahn in the nineties. Initially, psychological safety referred to the individual only through Amy Edmondson psychological safety was examined in the context of teams. In the corporate context, psychological safety first attracted special attention through a research project by Google (project name Aristotle – in 2012). Google examined factors that influence the performance of teams. In this study, psychological safety was identified as the most important basis for team performance. In a newspaper article in the New York Times in 2016, Google presented its findings, since then psychological safety has received strong attention in other companies. Several studies have proven the relationship between psychological safety and team performance.