Have you ever led a collaborative team meeting, only to be met with a deafening silence?
Often, even with the best intentions, leaders struggle to get the best from teams because there is no foundation for the safe exchange of ideas.
In fact, recent statistics imply very few leaders (only 25%) display the kinds of behaviors that are required to create a positive work environment, where team members and employees feel empowered and secure (McKinsey & Company, 2021).
In this article, we delve into the construct of psychological safety, why it is absolutely vital for successful businesses, and how leaders can actively create psychological safety for their teams and employees.
The Importance of Psychological Safety in the Workplace
Psychological safety is the shared belief that team work spaces are safe for interpersonal risk taking (Edmondson, 1999). It can be understood as an interpersonal construct that exists on both an individual and group level, and it is inherently linked with learning and team performance (Edmondson & Lei, 2014).
At work, individuals can often fall into instinctual patterns of thinking and behaving that are counterintuitive to productivity, creativity, and innovation. These include behaviors such as avoiding risk, fearing failure, hiding problems, agreeing with the status quo, not asking for help, diverting blame, and becoming complacent (Edmondson, 2018).
Given that work often requires collaboration among employees to achieve success, psychological safety has emerged as a critical construct in understanding how people can best work together to realize shared outcomes (Edmondson & Lei, 2014).
When employees feel emboldened and psychologically safe to take risks, they are more likely to contribute ideas and take positive action. For example, psychological safety is linked to increases in the following (Frazier et al., 2017):
Communication and knowledge sharing
Taking initiative to develop new ideas, products, and services
Team and organizational performance (e.g., quality internal auditing)
It is evident then, that psychological safety can have a catalog of benefits. But how do organizations foster climates of psychological safety? In the sections below, we look at steps leaders can take to create high-performing teams.
4 Stages of psychological safety
According to Clark (2020), there are four stages to building psychological safety in the workplace:
Create inclusion safety.
This first stage involves offering respect and unconditional positive regard for all individuals. At work, when leaders are more concerned with safe and innovative environments rather than being right, this can build a sense of inclusion for all employees.
Provide learner safety.
In this second stage, leaders must build a feedback culture where employees and team members may be vulnerable, try alternative approaches, and make mistakes. To do this, leaders must encourage and reward failure rather than merely accept it.
Provide contributor safety.
The third stage is about providing opportunities for employees to put what they have learned into practice. It focuses on building relationships with team members. Leaders must get to know their team and their strengths before supporting them to think beyond the limits and restrictions of their role. We are talking about autonomy and big picture thinking here.
Foster challenger safety.
The last stage centers on the ability for employees to voice constructive criticism and challenge the status quo. Here, leaders need to manage uncertainty by encouraging team members to troubleshoot from the beginning. Leaders can even assign team members to audit projects/processes and scout for improvements.
If leaders endeavor to provide safety to their team members at each of the levels above, this will ultimately result in a culture of psychological safety. During a period when leaders are nurturing a positive work climate, it is important to collect data in order to gauge progress. Below, we look at the best way to measure psychological safety in the workplace.
How to measure psychological safety
The most frequently used measure of psychological safety is Edmondson’s (1999) seven-item psychological safety scale. This scale assesses psychological safety on the group level. As such, the questions are geared toward an individual’s perception that they can engage in risk taking within their team.
The scale has good reliability and validity. Individuals can access the psychological safety scale via The Fearless Organization.
Beyond numeric data, it is important that leaders talk to their team members to understand how they feel about their working environment.
However, if survey data shows a drastically low level of safety within the team, it is unlikely that leaders will glean qualitative insights from their team members (precisely because of the lack of psychological safety).
In these instances, surveys can be designed to include open-ended qualitative data and can be anonymized to protect individual identities.
How Leaders Create Psychological Safety at Work
In the section above, we outlined four stages of building psychological safety.
Here, we flesh out specific pathways that leaders can experiment with, each of which has been effective in promoting psychological safety.
Early research on personal engagement in the workplace by Kahn (1990) identified four key drivers linked to psychological safety: interpersonal relationships, group dynamics, leadership, and organizational norms.
Below, we focus on two of the most impactful pathways to psychological safety.
1. Interpersonal relationships
A study by Carmeli and colleagues (2009) was interested in understanding how high-quality relationships in the workplace influence learning behaviors. The authors found that five capabilities afforded by high-quality relationships are each uniquely correlated with psychological safety.
Emotional carrying capacity
In turn, psychological safety is directly correlated to higher levels of learning behaviors in organizations. In other words, developing trusting, high-quality connections in teams is one of the most effective ways to build psychological safety and social capital and improve performance.
Edmondson (2018) argues that for businesses to be successful, leaders must drive fear out of the organization. This means leaders have a responsibility to override the inherent interpersonal fear that employees carry with them, particularly fear of failure.
To do so, leaders can try the following:
Set the stage
This refers to engaging in cognitive reframing of the work so that employees are not afraid to take risks with ideas and share ideas early on to enable course correction.
Here, leaders can make sure there is shared understanding of the task at hand by providing clarity around the novelty, risk of failure, and complexity of the task. In doing so, leaders can actively reduce uncertainty, which is the enemy of psychological safety.
This refers to collaborating with team members, which can build a culture of innovation.
Leaders can ask exploratory questions to deepen discussion and engagement. When leaders ask good questions on what matters, it can invite considered responses, but leaders must be open to hearing new perspectives.
Leaders undoubtedly have a tremendous impact on the working environment. Therefore, it is important that organizations invest heavily in leadership development at all levels, providing training, coaching, mentoring, and shadowing. Even executive or senior leaders should receive this investment.
Equally, leaders at the top might believe that a certain organizational culture exists, but junior leaders need to be actively trained in the specific values and behaviors that embody the desired culture.
On top of training, positive leadership behaviors ought to be modeled from the top down. Leaders who model desired positive behaviors are more likely to have a culture of psychological safety and more successful teams (McKinsey & Company, 2021).
Skills Leaders Need to Promote a Culture of Safety
Leaders must develop the skills to build a psychologically safe environment (McKinsey & Company, 2021).
It is not a given that individuals promoted into leadership positions or existing leaders already have these skills.
Leadership behaviors that are consultative, collaborative, and supportive are pivotal for creating a positive work climate, which in turn helps to facilitate psychological safety (McKinsey & Company, 2021). Conversely, leaders should avoid authoritative behaviors.
Because psychological safety can vary drastically within organizations and across departments and teams, leaders and managers must be effective at congruent communication.
Communication skills are instrumental in creating open dialogue and show that leaders value employees who speak up, question existing practices, and suggest new ideas.
Skills in empathy, vulnerability, and humility can also be particularly powerful. Leaders who apologize for not creating psychologically safe environments display openness and vulnerability, qualities that invite greater connections through authentic leadership.
Leaders who can show they are human are able to lead more effectively because they model positive behaviors that indicate this environment is safe for exploration, mistakes, and challenge (Brown, 2006).
Creating psychological safety at work in a knowledge economy
Check out the following video by Amy Edmondson on how leaders can create psychological safety.
Psychological Safety Training
One tough challenge organizations face is how to manage interpersonal threats that naturally arise within the workplace, often as a result of uncertainty. These threats tend to be subtle, yet they can pack a punch and ultimately are detrimental to organizational learning (Edmondson & Lei, 2014).
Because these threats emerge organically — and psychological safety, on the other hand, does not — organizations must be proactive in their endeavors to build psychological safety. Leadership training can be one helpful way to set this ball in motion.
Leaders can look to none other than Amy Edmondson herself for a stellar training course on psychological safety hosted through LinkedIn. The course aims at providing leaders with core knowledge about psychological safety, while simultaneously focusing on specific skills leaders need, including trust and openness. The course is under 30 minutes, provides leaders with professional development and education units, and a certificate on completion.
For longer training courses or programs, there are countless training institutes and organizations that offer both individual and group experiential workshops, such as the psychological safety training program offered through the Center for Creative Leadership.
An alternative route to psychological safety is for an organization to provide all its leaders with inclusive leadership training. Inclusive leadership focuses on helping leaders build six core competencies (Bourke, 2018):
The following exercises and worksheets are designed to help improve communication skills, amplify productivity, and promote healthy teams.
Active Listening Reflection Worksheet This exercise provides individuals with an overview of the components of active listening before inviting them to reflect on a recent conversation they had and which aspects of active listening they used. The exercise is designed to help leaders develop self-awareness and, more importantly, the skill of active listening.
Effective Communication Reflection Worksheet This worksheet helps individuals develop effective communication within their teams. Individuals are invited to reflect on the unique elements of effective communication, including appropriate body language, using personal pronouns, and asking open-ended questions. The team will then be asked to write down which elements individuals find most challenging and how they can improve their team communication.
High-Quality Relationships Worksheet This worksheet is all about developing high-quality connections. Individuals are invited to reflect on several questions pertaining to the components of positive relationships, including emotional expression, coping with challenges, and listening. Individuals are then asked to write down what they can do to improve their own approach to each relationship element.
17 Productivity & Work Efficiency Exercises
In this toolkit, individuals are provided with a host of exercises that help to maximize productivity. Of particular relevance to psychological safety are exercises such as creating a comfortable workspace, understanding the costs of perfectionism at work, and giving yourself permission to make mistakes.
A Take-Home Message
Psychological safety is the bedrock of high-performing teams and innovative organizations.
There are multiple ways to foster a safe work climate for team members, many of which emphasize leaders and the cultural behaviors they themselves model.
As such, leadership development is one of the most effective approaches to create work environments where employees feel able to take risks.
Particularly salient leadership skills include open communication, relationship building and management, and vulnerability.
With that in mind, improving the shocking low statistics mentioned by McKinsey & Company (2021) begins with leadership development. And there’s no lack of short courses with which to improve your skills. So, that begs the question:
Amy Edmondson (1999), professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School coined the term “psychological safety” in an article that explored team performance.
What is the goal of psychological safety?
The goal of psychological safety is to create an environment where employees and team members can challenge ideas and be creative, without the risk of repercussions or punishment. It is a particularly critical component for diversity, inclusion, and belonging.
How does psychological safety relate to performance standards?
When individuals feel psychologically safe within the workplace, teams are able to be more collaborative and more innovative. This is because there is a culture of open dialogue and feedback.
Bourke, J. (2018). The diversity and inclusion revolution: Eight powerful truths. Deloitte Review, 22. Retrieved September 8, 2023, from https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/deloitte-review/issue-22/diversity-and-inclusion-at-work-eight-powerful-truths.html.
Brown, B. (2006). Shame resilience theory: A grounded theory study on women and shame. Families in Society, 87(1), 43–52.
Carmeli, A., Brueller, D., & Dutton, J. E. (2009). Learning behaviours in the workplace: The role of high-quality interpersonal relationships and psychological safety. Systems Research and Behavioral Science: The Official Journal of the International Federation for Systems Research, 26(1), 81–98.
Clark, T. R. (2020). The 4 stages of psychological safety: Defining the path to inclusion and innovation. Berrett-Koehler.
Edmondson, A. C. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44, 350–383.
Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. John Wiley & Sons.
Edmondson, A. C., & Lei, Z. (2014). Psychological safety: The history, renaissance, and future of an interpersonal construct. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1(1), 23–43.
Edmondson, A. C., & Scott, K. (2022). Follow these 4 steps to create psychological safety in your teams. Fast Company. Retrieved September 8, 2023, from https://www.fastcompany.com/90814937/follow-these-4-steps-to-create-psychological-safety-in-your-teams.
Frazier, M. L., Fainshmidt, S., Klinger, R. L., Pezeshkan, A., & Vracheva, V. (2017). Psychological safety: A meta‐analytic review and extension. Personnel Psychology, 70(1), 113–165.
Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of Management Journal, 33, 692–724
McKinsey & Company. (2021, February 11). Psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development. Retrieved September 8, 2023, from
About the author
Kirsty Gardiner, Ph.D. is a Social Psychologist with a passion for using research to power social change. She holds a doctorate in Psychology, a masters in Applied Positive Psychology, and is a registered chartered Psychologist with the BPS. On completing her Ph.D. she taught on the MAPPCP programme for several years. Currently, she is based in the UK as the Research Director at Ardent - a DEI consultancy.