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Psychological Safety Fuels Performance

Most organizations don’t just want to succeed; they want to create an environment where people truly thrive. It goes beyond free snacks and cool office spaces. It's about creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable, safe, and supported.

It’s called psychological safety and it’s the secret ingredient that fuels innovation, collaboration, and overall employee well-being. Research shows that psychologically safe teams perform at their best. When employees feel safe, they are not afraid to think outside the box, share innovative ideas, or question the status quo.

Psychological safety refers to the shared belief that one can express ideas, share feedback, take risks, and be vulnerable without fearing negative consequences, humiliation, or rejection. As Amy Edmondson puts it, “it’s felt permission for candor.”

Edmondson first landed on the concept in 1999 while studying the rate of mistakes made by medical teams. Edmondson found that the teams that made more mistakes performed better than teams that made fewer mistakes — or at least, that’s how it seemed at first. Upon a deeper dive into the data, Edmondson found that it was the teams that had a culture of openly admitting to making mistakes that had better outcomes. The other teams were making mistakes, too; they just hid them.

Over the last 20 years or so, Edmondson has found that psychological safety seems to matter more in work environments where work isn't prescribed, but rather where employees need to use their discretion. The relationship between psychological safety and performance is stronger in work environments that require creativity, collaboration and innovation.

Leaders beware: Ignore psychological safety at your peril. It's always safer to hold back and avoid conflict. But as Edmondson says, “In today’s work environment, that can prove anywhere between catastrophic and just counterproductive. That’s created a greater need for psychological safety as things are more uncertain and more fast-moving. We are more dependent on each other, and yet, we may be at risk of not hearing from each other.”

Psychological safety doesn't guarantee that things won't go wrong. Things will go wrong on creative, innovative teams. That's the nature of the beast. But psychological safety ensures that when things go wrong, people won't be humiliated, penalized, or punished for speaking up about them.

Psychological safety doesn't just impact employee engagement and satisfaction. The human brain has evolved to be a well-calibrated danger detector. When we lack safety in any context - physical or psychological - the limbic system notifies the survival brain (amygdala) of the danger and pauses activity in the thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) to allocate all neural resources to deal with the threat. Instead of focusing on our work, the brain stays focused on the danger until it's gone.

But here's the catch - creating and nurturing psychological safety is a long-term, ongoing process. It requires commitment from everyone, from the leadership team down to the newest recruit. So, let's explore a few essential keys to foster this transformative workplace culture.


1.  Lead by example. It starts with leadership setting the tone. Encourage open communication, actively listen to your employees, and acknowledge the value of their contributions. When leaders embrace vulnerability, it creates a ripple effect throughout the organization.


2.  Promote a blame-free culture. Mistakes happen; it's a part of growth. Encourage a blame-free environment, where failures are seen as learning opportunities. This empowers individuals to share their experiences and learn from each other.


3.  Encourage active listening and open dialogue. Remember, ideas can come from anyone, regardless of title or seniority. Foster an environment where everyone's voices are not only heard but genuinely considered. This cultivates trust and encourages collaboration.


4.  Provide regular feedback and recognition. Feedback, both positive and constructive, is essential for growth. Recognize and celebrate individual and team achievements, showing appreciation for their efforts. This inspires confidence and motivates individuals to keep pushing their boundaries.

Psychological safety isn't just a nice-to-have; it's a must-have for a vibrant and healthy company culture and peak performance. Remember, it's not just about creating a “smile and nod” culture. Often misunderstood as "harmonious and free of conflict," organizations with high levels of psychological safety create an environment where challenge, conflict, and mistakes are valued, and learning is a team sport. Hallmarks of a psychologically safe environment are seen when individuals can take risks, experiment, and fail — without fear of repercussions.

It's about empowering individuals to be contributing members of the team – both teaching and learning to build collective intelligence that fuels employee engagement and organizational success.

The neuroscience of psychological safety by Melissa Hughes

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