It is well recognised that feeling supported and safe psychologically can enhance individual and team performance in the workplace. But it is also important for generating and sustaining a positive physical safety culture, writes Deborah Hulme.
Why is there so much interest nowadays among employers in psychological safety, and what is its interplay with physical safety? It is certainly true that there is currently much interest in psychological safety, a concept that in reality has been around since 1965, when it was first introduced by Schein and Bennis.
About the author
Deborah Hulme is founder Minerva Engagement* and the Neuroleader Academy, which specialises in applying social cognitive neuroscience learnings to business.
Since then there has been a growing body of research, including the influential paper, Psychological Safety and Learning Behaviours in Teams (1999) written by Harvard University professor Dr Amy Edmondson.
However, the concept of psychological safety only really began to gain traction within the business community over the past five years or so.
This revival of interest in psychological safety is largely thanks to a study undertaken by Google’s project Aristotle that focused on what needed to be in place to create a consistently high-performing team.
The study reviewed hundreds of academic studies, analysing more than 180 internal teams involving 37,000 employees over a period of two years.
Its findings showed that, whilst there were common factors such as structure and clarity, meaning and impact, what mattered most was how the team worked together rather than who made up the team.
Psychological safety and high performance
However, it was only when the findings from Dr Edmondson’s earlier research were incorporated into the study that the consistent thread across high-performing teams was identified, namely, psychological safety.
Psychological safety is defined as the ability to speak up and participate in a group without fear of consequences. Felt by individuals, it is experienced in social situations and, thanks to scientific research, is now understood to be an essential component for trust, communication and collaboration as well as innovation, decision-making and problem-solving.
Quite simply the more threatened we feel within our team or social group, the less likely we are to contribute our ideas, challenge the status quo or report that near miss or close call.
We know from research emerging via neuroscience and neuropsychology that the human brain works to keep us safe above all else.
We respond to threats (perceived or real) such as uncertainty, unexplained change, a bullying boss or a toxic team environment by keeping our heads down and avoiding confrontation.
This is one of the reasons why psychological safety is considered important for an effective safety culture and a positive safety climate.
Correlational studies report a strong link between psychological safety and willingness to report one’s errors and behaviours (Wright and Opiah, 2018). In essence, the less we speak up the more safety incidents go unidentified with the subsequent loss of learning that prevents ongoing repetition.
Professor Dr J Groeneweg describes this new understanding as “The New Dawn of Safety” (GCE Risk, 2020). According to Groeneweg, we are moving from continual improvement through technology, culture and leadership into the importance of team.
Where organisations and individuals function as collaborative, networked teams, working together to reduce risk, they generate the motivation and energy that encourages innovation and consistently high wellbeing and performance over time.
His view is that within our organisations we are now around 96% safer than we were in the 1980s.
Whilst he acknowledges this is a great leap forward, he also highlights that, as a consequence, the learning pool is much smaller than it once was.
Therefore, if we are to continue to learn and improve what we do, Dr Groeneweg’s belief is that we need to learn from what we do exceptionally well, as much as we learn from what has gone wrong.
He references the Red Bull Formula One pit crew who are always consistently fast, breaking their own records, as they safely send their car back out onto the track.
Quality of teamwork and psychological safety
In 2019 the Red Bull team’s fastest pit-stop, involving a team of around 22 people, was 1.82 seconds and they achieve this (or within a fraction of this) consistently over and over again. When questioned on how they do it, they put their success down to human performance not mechanical advantage; the trust that exists among the team members, accountability, openness as well as the dedication to practice and process.
In other words, the quality of the teamwork being determined by the level of psychological safety that exists within the team.
The important point Groeneweg is making here is that the level of trust and psychological safety within the Red Bull team means they learn as much from their mistakes as they do from their successes. That error is seen as a learning opportunity and a shared experience about what works and what doesn’t.
Indeed, that learning from error is a collective responsibility, one that operates within an environment and culture that makes it safe to learn from mistakes, rather than being diminished because of them.
Interestingly, we are now seeing industry level responses emerging that support and encourage this thinking, including:
- The new ISO standard, ISO: 45003 has a focus on psychosocial risk and, embedded within this is, the importance of psychological safety at work. Launching in 2021 it will complement the well-established standard ISO:45001 for Occupational Health & Safety. (ISO/DIS 45003, 2020).
- A letter published recently in The Times from 33 leading organisations (Unilever, global banks, energy companies, the CBI and others) emphasised the importance of prioritising psychological safety, as well as physical safety (Gosden, 2020).
- RSSB, the Railway Standards Board, is currently developing wellbeing KPIs for the rail industry (RSSB home page, 2020).
Whilst the focus is certainly shifting, it is not an easy ask. It is not enough for managers to say, “my door is always open”, “we are listening”, “there are no mistakes just learning opportunities”.
In fact, research suggests that psychological safety does not necessarily emerge even as a product of a positive safety climate. Principally because, it’s a property of “team”, influenced to a large extent by the mindset, behaviours and energy of whoever is leading the team.
Leaders and managers play a critical role in creating a psychologically safe environment by setting out the vision, values and modelling the way.
For example, by avoiding negative reactions to error reports and evading initiatives such as zero accident programmes, which may, un-intentionally, undermine reporting behaviour. Effective safety structure, process, messaging and governance are all essential; however, impact is hindered if displayed leadership behaviours are not aligned.
The line manager/leader/team relationships are crucial to continued safety improvement. Fortunately, we now have the intelligence, frameworks and the measurement tools to support and develop leadership understanding and capability.
Through data, guidance and targeted interventions we can extend existing skills and capabilities as we work our way towards Red Bull levels of consistent high performance.
*Minerva Engagement is a strategic people consultancy focused on the relationship between psychological safety, wellbeing and performance. For any OH practitioners wanting to find out more, please email [email protected]
Edmondson A and Lei Z (2014). “Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, And Future Of An Interpersonal Construct”. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, vol 1:23-43. Available online at https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-031413-091305
Edmondson A (1999). “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams”. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), p.350.
Gosden E (2020). “Mental Health ‘Is A Priority’”. The Times. Available online at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/mental-health-is-a-priority-lfd27dr3b
Wright M and Opiah S (2020). “Literature review: the relationship between psychological safety, human performance and HSE performance”. Greenstreet Berman. Available online at https://heartsandminds.energyinst.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/648484/Literature-review-the-relationship-between-psychological-safety,-human-performance-and-HSE-performance.pdf
ISO/DIS 45003. Occupational health and safety management — Psychological health and safety at work : managing psychosocial risks — Guidelines. ISO, https://www.iso.org/standard/64283.html
Knowles M (1967). “Personal and organizational change through group methods: the laboratory approach”. Within Adult Education, by Edgar H Schein and Warren G Bennis, New York: John Wiley & Son, 1965. 17(2), pp.126-128.
Groeneweg D J (2020). “Psychological Safety within Formula 1. CGE Risk”, Connected by Risk Seminar, 24 September, 2020. Available online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brITLSki5wM&feature=youtu.be
“re:Work” withgoogle.com 2020. Re:Work. Available online at https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/
The RSSB: what we do, latest updates (2020). Available online at https://www.rssb.co.uk/en/what-we-do/insights-and-news/news
Wildner M (2000). “Aristotle and the human genome project”. The Lancet, 356(9238), p.1360.