The Real Deal on Psychological Safety: Not Just a Buzzword 

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In a rapidly evolving workplace, psychological safety has emerged as a fundamental pillar for creating a culture where employees feel empowered to contribute. 

It’s the foundation that allows teams to speak up, share ideas, and address challenges together. 

Yet, the very concept that promises so much is at risk of being reduced to a management buzzword – a well-intentioned concept diluted by box-ticking approaches and misinterpretation.

Let’s revisit what psychological safety means and why organisations must uphold it with nuance and adaptability.

Where did psychological safety come from? 

Psychological safety is not a new concept, though its application in modern workplaces might seem recent.

 The term has deep roots in both psychology and organisational studies, crucial for understanding how teams function at their best. 

The journey of psychological safety began with the pioneering work of Kurt Lewin in the mid-20th century. Lewin’s research into leadership styles and group behaviour highlighted the vital role of safe social environments in effective team operations.

It wasn’t until the early 1990s, however, that the term ‘psychological safety’ gained prominence, thanks to William Khan’s research into personal engagement at work. Khan emphasised the ability to fully engage oneself without fear of damaging one’s self-image, status, or career.

However, the real catalyst for bringing psychological safety to the forefront of organisational culture was Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School. Edmondson described psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” 

Her findings underscored that such an environment fosters a culture of candid feedback, openness to admitting mistakes, and a willingness to experiment — all vital for organisational learning and improvement.

This concept was further validated by Google’s Project Aristotle, which showed that psychological safety is the single biggest determinant of team success. Teams with high levels of psychological safety were more likely to stay intact, be more productive, and be recognised by leadership as effective.

Today, the need for psychological safety is recognised globally, not just as a component of employee wellbeing but as a strategic lever for enhancing engagement, performance, and gaining a competitive edge.

However, embedding psychological safety in complex, ever-evolving organisational environments requires a nuanced and adaptable approach, understanding that it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution but a dynamic element of workplace culture. 

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Common Misconceptions about Psychological Safety

Misconception: Psychological safety = trust.
Reality: Psychological safety starts with trust but is not solely dependent on it.

Trust is undoubtedly the bedrock upon which psychological safety is built, but many interactions in large organisations are transactional, gradually eroding meaningful connections. Establishing genuine, caring relationships is essential, as 84% of organisational trust originates from caring (Paul J. Zak – Trust Factor).

Leaders must prioritise building empathetic relationships that foster a secure space for sharing ideas. Without a strong foundation of trust and care, psychological safety cannot thrive. 

Importantly, leaders themselves need psychological safety to listen without feeling threatened. Their reactions to challenging perspectives will set the tone for openness across the organisation.

Misconception: Psychological safety means feeling safe to speak up in all situations.

Reality: Psychological safety is most relevant in trusted, familiar environments.

A conversation I had with the Chief People Officer of a large organisation revealed a common misconception that people should feel safe to express opinions openly in every situation. 

They told me that during “Ask Me Anything” sessions with the CEO, differences in question quality arose between anonymous and non-anonymous channels, reflecting the natural caution people exhibit in unfamiliar environments or when facing influential figures.

Interpreting psychological safety solely as a willingness to take public risks overlooks how personal risk appetites vary.

True psychological safety involves creating environments where diverse perspectives are shared comfortably, irrespective of individual nature. Tailored tools must accommodate these dynamics.

Misconception: Psychological safety is linear.
Reality: Psychological safety is dynamic and continually changing.

Despite the linear nature of some models, psychological safety is influenced by many factors, including leadership changes, external pressures, team dynamics, and personal experiences. The “way we do things around here” changes continuously as teams evolve.

Viewing psychological safety as a straightforward path is misleading. Instead, it requires consistent evaluation and iteration. Only by embedding it into organisational culture through continuous adaptation can employees feel secure across different situations.

Broadening the Scope: Psychological Safety in Everyday Contexts

Too often, discussions around psychological safety highlight extreme cases, like aviation or medical fields where lives are directly at stake. Most of us operate in environments where the stakes aren’t about immediate life or death, but that doesn’t mean implications for business health and personal wellbeing aren’t significant.

In typical workplaces, psychological safety is critical in fostering innovation, job satisfaction, and overall company success. For instance, an employee may hesitate to suggest a new idea during a meeting due to fear of ridicule or dismissal. While this situation isn’t life-threatening, the cumulative effect of such silencing will stifle innovation and undermine feelings of belonging and significance.

Moreover, in industries far removed from emergency contexts, psychological safety allows for the exploration of new ideas without fear of failure and enhances collaboration. Employees who feel psychologically safe are more likely to share insights that prevent costly mistakes or propose innovative solutions that drive business forward.

Thus, psychological safety should be seen as vital across all sectors and roles. It’s about creating a workplace where every voice can contribute to continuous improvement and innovation, leading to more robust organisational health.

Psychological safety: The essential foundation of a thriving culture 

As we’ve explored, psychological safety is far from merely a buzzword—it is a critical component of a thriving workplace culture. 

From its historical roots to its application in modern businesses, psychological safety is foundational for fostering an environment where employees feel genuinely valued and empowered to contribute. 

However, as we’ve clarified, significant misconceptions about what psychological safety truly entails and how it can be achieved persist.

Psychological safety cannot exist without trust, yet it also demands more than trust—it requires a continuous effort to build empathetic and caring relationships. 

It means creating spaces where people feel safe to share their thoughts and ideas in familiar and non-threatening environments, not just any setting. 

Moreover, understanding that psychological safety is dynamic and fluctuates with changes within the team and the broader organisation underscores the need for ongoing attention and adaptation.

Implementing appropriate tooling is essential in this endeavour. Tools that offer anonymity and allow for asynchronous communication can help nurture an environment where employees can engage in sensemaking and problem elaboration without fear of embarrassment or repercussions. These tools should not be seen as ‘nuclear’ options but as valuable resources to facilitate dialogue and understanding in a controlled and respectful manner.

Neglecting psychological safety has profound implications: a lack of belonging, reduced innovation, and the marginalisation of key voices. Conversely, investing in psychological safety unlocks the potential of your workforce, fostering a resilient, agile, and inclusive organisation.

In closing, I urge every leader to reflect on the current state of psychological safety within their teams.

It’s about more than just preventing harm; it’s about actively creating a culture that celebrates openness and mutual respect. 

Let us not allow psychological safety to become diluted into meaninglessness. Instead, let’s champion it as the cornerstone of a vibrant and successful workplace, supported by thoughtful and innovative tools that enhance communication and trust.

About the author:

With 25 years of experience in management consulting, leadership advice, and strategy, David Bellamy has a deep understanding of the human aspects of work and the challenges that leaders face in creating a positive and inclusive environment.  

As the Founder and CEO of Harkn, David leads a team of passionate and innovative professionals who are on a mission to create workplaces where both the company and its employees thrive. Since no strategy, change initiative or acquisition is successful without a motivated and engaged workforce, Harkn helps companies better understand sentiment and culture by making it safer and easier for employees to share their experiences, ideas and opinions.

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