In her pioneering work in 1999, Amy Edmondson identified the concept of Psychological Safety - a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. She discovered that the best-functioning teams are the ones where people feel safe to speak up - to make mistakes, to own up, to share ideas and offer opinions. Since then, organisations such as Google have done their own studies whose findings support this, showing that this one factor could make the biggest difference in how a team and an organisation performs.
This makes perfect sense to me - the free flow of ideas and the capacity to be ok with and admit to failure and mistakes and move on to the next thing is a huge enabler of business (and life) performance.
Edmondson’s discovery has generated a deluge of ideas, trainings and applications around ‘how to create’ psychological safety in teams. They’re all based on the premise that psychological safety is a result of the environment (including leadership behaviours).
People look to leaders to ‘create’ psychological safety within their teams. And on the surface, it seems logical that people will feel more able to speak up and share their ideas if the environment is encouraging of that. The irony, however, is that the leadership behaviours that are identified as helping to create psychological safety in a team (owning up, apologising, sharing ideas and talking openly about their own failures and mistakes) are the behaviours of a leader who already feels psychologically safe.
So that raises questions about the theory that psychological safety is a creation of the leader and can be ‘given’ to a person as a result of the leader’s behaviours.
If Psychological Safety is bestowed or created by your leader, where would the CEO or Chairperson of the Board (the ultimate leader) get theirs from?
Would it mean you don’t take it with you when you go to the next job, because it’s dependent on your leader?
Is your psychological safety really at the mercy of whatever leadership environment you walk into?
Well, here’s some good news for you - Psychological Safety is already yours, and you take it with you wherever you go - work or play, love life, social media, or relationships with friends.
Psychological Safety - the confidence to speak up, make mistakes, apologies, own up, fail and generally make your opinions known - doesn’t come from the environment and can’t be created by a leader or anyone else. That confidence (or ‘feeling safe to do x’) is an implication of understanding where your feelings of safety or confidence really come from, and that you’re not (and never were) at the mercy of your environment or the leader you’re working with.
We’ve all seen the person who doesn’t feel fazed by the bully, or who gives their opinion no matter how much it’s shouted down or ridiculed by others. How would we explain that, if psychological safety comes from the environment?
Anyone who’s been in a leadership position will know that despite your best efforts, not everyone will respond to the things you do to try and make things better for the team. You could be the best leader in the world - one who owns up to their mistakes, apologises for their errors, welcomes feedback non-defensively and actively solicits opinions; that doesn’t automatically mean your team will feel safe. Your team is made up of human beings who each have a different understanding and conditioned thinking about what is safe for them or not. You can’t control how someone else feels.
It seems that in our eagerness to replicate the conditions that seem to create brilliant teams, we’ve got the equation around the wrong way.
Psychological Safety is not a product of the leadership or team environment; the environment is a reflection of how psychologically safe (secure in themselves) people feel. It’s an inside job.
That doesn’t mean that a leader shouldn’t care about creating the type of environment which encourages sharing and owning up, but it’s not the full picture and it’s not what will cause the fundamental shift organisations are looking for. And indeed, the leader can and will only display ‘psychologically safe’ behaviours to the extent they feel psychologically safe themselves. Those behaviours are implications, not techniques to apply.
Take an example of a client (let’s call her Juliette). Juliette has a boss who behaves in ways she terms bullying. She had been afraid to speak up for fear of repercussions, and when she did speak up about things she saw as unfair or not right, it was coming from such a fearful place that it was being interpreted as argumentative, uncooperative, lazy, or simply wrong.
We were having some conversations around the theme of resilience, and Juliette had had some big realisations about how much thinking she had about her boss and his way of being – what it meant about him, what it meant about her, the past, the future... As she came to realise that her feelings of insecurity were coming from the storm of thought she had about her boss (not from the boss himself), she became ‘immune’ to the behaviours he was displaying.
She realised, with complete clarity, that his behaviour had nothing to do with her, and that when she wasn’t paying attention to all that fearful thinking, she was absolutely fine, whatever he did or said. This realisation resulted in a lot of the fearful, insecure thinking falling away (as it was no longer relevant) and Juliette was able quite naturally to start speaking up from a much calmer, clearer place, secure in the understanding that he didn’t hold her psychological safety in his hands.
With her new understanding, Juliette was able to deal with situations objectively and in the moment, without harking back to previous situations, withdrawing into rumination or holding back as she would have before. She no longer attributed imagined motives to people’s actions and was able to articulate her needs with a mind free of worry.
Her feedback was heard much differently from that place, and on a personal level she shed the ‘workplace stress’ that had plagued her to the point of burnout for ten years. Significant mental capacity was freed up; as a ‘side effect’, her job became easier and more enjoyable, and she now faces any difficulties at home or at work with less worry and more clarity.
Note that in this story, the boss didn’t change, but Juliette’s understanding of where her psychological safety really comes from, did. And if I’d been having this conversation with Juliette’s boss, we’d have been talking about the same things.
So, if we’re using the term psychological safety, let’s put the focus where it belongs. Instead of trying to ‘fix’ the environment, which is not the source of someone’s feelings of safety or insecurity, let’s focus on helping teams and leaders understand that they’re already psychologically safe, and why it sometimes seems to them that they’re not.
It’s time to put the focus on the cause rather than the effect; once people start to understand where their feelings of security and insecurity really come from, the environment (behaviours) will take care of itself.
Let’s not perpetuate the myth that puts people in the position of victim to others’ leadership abilities and personal qualities or behaviours; let’s not leave people waiting to be given something that is already theirs.
This is a conversation I love having, so if you’d like to explore further, or test this out on a situation you are dealing with currently, feel free to get in touch.
Vivienne’s career spans 20+ years in HR, Organisational Development and coaching, in a wide range of industries including Finance, Media, Science and Healthcare. Her approach to organisational and cultural change is centred around helping leaders and teams understand the nature and potential of the mind, creating fundamental shifts in perspective, resilience, clarity and therefore behaviours.
Vivienne is on the UK faculty of the Conscious Leadership School, and is the author of 28 Days of Resilience: All you need to know about your innate ability to bounce back, and lives in the French Pyrenees with her husband a small menagerie of cats, dogs and chickens.