Creating a culture of psychological safety – What is all the fuss about?

Leadership Blog  |  6 minute read

Gemma Toner

Written by Gemma Toner

Creating a culture of psychological safety – What is all the fuss about?

In business it seems like there’s always something to be focussed on around organisational culture: health, safety, wellbeing.   We don’t know about you, but recently we have found people are asking a lot of questions about psychological safety, so we thought we’d answer some FAQ’s:

Where did it come from? Why are we hearing about it? What exactly is it? And what’s the point?


Where did it come from?

The name for the concept was first coined way back in the 1960’s and the need for Psychological safety rose to prominence in the 90’s.

But that was then, so why on earth are we hearing about it so often right now?

The answer?  It’s important!

In 2016 Google found, after a four year study on team performance, that psychological safety was the number one predictor of team success. And the fact is we all want successful teams, so we need it. But what is it?


What is it?

The basic concept echoes what we always say here at Achieve Breakthrough: “Context is decisive.”  In this case, it’s all to do with the unseen environment.

Sound a bit fluffy? We get that a lot.  But we must tell you, it’s not.

It affects who people are being, and therefore impacts their performance and the success of your organisation. It’s a domino effect.


Psychologically safe, but totally candid

A psychologically safe environment is one in which your people feel able to bring their whole selves to work.  Be themselves. Speak with their Little Voices. Share ideas without fear of ridicule of embarrassment. Feel accepted and respected. This can only be a good thing in a world of business where to stay ahead of the competition means we need to be able to generate possibilities and ‘think outside the box’ on a daily basis. It has been found that people who feel psychologically safe at work are more innovative, sharing their most ‘out there’ ideas freely and eagerly embracing the inevitable breakdownsthat happen when committing to a big goal.


What’s the point?

The point is that making sure you have created a psychologically safe environment for your people negates a culture of fear and encourages entrepreneurial thought and risk taking. It not only promotes staff morale, satisfaction and loyalty but also boosts productivity.

It’s not fluffy. It really does have a tangible impact on your bottom line.

A watch out around this is that although Psychological safety encourages vulnerability and a tolerance for failure, it does not take away the need for 100% accountability and full alignment in your team.

A wise man once said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” and we’re inclined to agree. We suggest that leaders take the initiative in embedding psychological safety into day to day operations. Start open discussions on breakdowns and instigate truthful talks about failures, including their own. Leaders can also make sure the team knows that breakdowns do not equal poor performance and there will be no nasty consequences for making breakdowns public. On the flip side, stating clearly that not being open about breakdowns is a performance issue reinforces a culture in which it is safe to tell the truth about struggles and safe to ask for help.

At the end of the day, we spend roughly one third of our life work, and will spend between 25 to 30 years working.  We want the best for and from our people so we ignore the importance and impact of creating psychologically safe working environments at our peril.


Published 21/05/2019

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