Psychological safety is having an identity crisis. The once-obscure academic concept is now part of mainstream corporate lexicon–and, surprise! It’s been taken out of context, used incorrectly and misappropriated to the point that it’s barely recognizable in its current state. The concept’s bastardization is a crying shame because its original intention was pure: to offer a framework for leaders to create a culture where people feel free to voice their (sometimes) unpopular or sensitive opinions without fear of retribution in the aim of making their projects, team interactions, and overall goal achievement more collaborative and productive.
Psychological Safety’s Origin Story
To see how this concept has evolved, let’s go back to its early entry into the business world’s consciousness. Harvard Business School professor Amy C. Edmonson first published her research, Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams in 1999. In this paper, Edmonson introduced the “construct of psychological safety” in which team members hold a shared belief that it’s safe to take interpersonal risks as a means to better relationships and performance. She theorized that psychological safety is the belief that one can speak up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes without fear of reprisal or negative consequences.
Edmonson and others (among them William Kahn, Edgar Schein, and Amy Wrzesniewski) posit that leaders need to create a culture of psychological safety in order to foster innovation, learning, and high performance in their teams.
Straightforward enough, right?
Right. Except that humans can’t leave well enough alone.
Never Waste an Opportunity to Get a Good Concept Wrong
We humans are good at taking an idea and running with it. And if it has a catchy moniker (bonus points for alliteration!) so much the better. At the end of the day, those buzzy words aren’t all that helpful, if leaders aren’t getting to the systemic causes of their challenges. As often happens (much to academics’ consternation, I would imagine) a perfectly reasonable idea like “psychological safety” gets bastardized to the point that it’s flat out misunderstood. Critics say that if taken too far, the notion of psychological safety can result in an, “I can say anything I want because we have ‘safety’ on our teams to do so.” Edmonson herself took on the misconstruing of her concept in this Financial Times piece, observing that somehow, people have taken the concept to mean that speaking up will solve all ills. Not at all, she exclaims. Edmonson frets that the concept is being given outsized credence. In reality, she says, it’s one of many factors that help teams succeed. “It’s an important thing, but it isn’t a silver bullet,” she cautions.
Back to the Basics: A Leader’s Role in Creating Psychological Safety
So, let’s get back to the basics as it relates to how leaders can create a speak up culture.
According to Edmonson, there are four ways leaders can get back on track with creating team cultures that value speaking up – for the right reasons and in the right ways:
Encouraging team members to speak up: Leaders should actively solicit input and feedback from their team members, and create opportunities for open dialogue and discussion.
What this sounds like:
- What are your reactions to what’s being said right now?
- Who would like to add, amend or reframe what we’ve been discussing?
- What am I missing in this conversation? Where are my blind spots?
Acknowledging and addressing concerns: Leaders should respond to concerns and questions with empathy and respect, and take steps to address any issues raised.
What this sounds like:
- I see this is having a strong impact on you
- That must be really difficult for you to say
- Thank you for telling me. I’m going to research it and get back to you by tomorrow.
Modeling vulnerability: Leaders who are willing to admit their own mistakes and limitations, create a culture where it is safe for others to do the same.
What this sounds like.
- I know better and I’m sorry
- I learned something new today; thanks for calling me out on that
- I chose my words carelessly, will you forgive me?
Establishing norms of respect: Leaders who set clear expectations for how team members should interact with one another signal to their teams what is and isn’t acceptable regarding interpersonal interactions.
What this sounds like:
- [Said in private]: Name, when you said, X, that wasn’t modeling our culture of respect. In the future, how might you rephrase that?
- [When observing a group of team members interacting]: Checking in: Is this good natured ribbing or is there something we need to talk about?
Leaders who create a culture where all team members feel valued and able to speak their minds is a worthy goal. The next time someone bandies about the phrase “psychological safety,” go back to the basics. Check in with yourself and decide: is the topic related to one of the four previously mentioned “how to’s?” If not, leave it be. It’s just noise.