Psychological Safety – Behind The Buzzword

Psychological Safety’ is being talked about in many organisations at the moment. Director of Learning ERIN LLOYD ROTICH explains what it is, why it’s important, and how you can cultivate it in your organisation.

So, what is Psychological Safety? About fifteen years ago Google conducted some research to find out what makes its teams productive, happy and cohesive, and they found that this concept of psychological safety was foundational. It’s basically the freedom someone feels to express a difference of opinion or to challenge leadership, without feeling concerned about being embarrassed, humiliated or shamed. So it’s about everyone having a voice, and feeling able to speak without fear of what will happen. A lot of people talk about trust as the foundation of a good team, but this research found that psychological safety comes before trust. And this makes sense to me, because when you talk to an individual in therapy, if they don’t feel safe, then you don’t ever build trust. 

How does a team that has Psychological Safety look different to one that hasn’t?In a team that has psychological safety, people will disagree, and disagree often. But it will be different people that disagree each time. And in a team without it, on the surface you might see a well functioning team who don’t disagree, but often when a big problem comes to light in these places, it can be traced back to a lack of psychological safety. For example, sexual harassment or bullying might be allowed to continue because people are afraid of what will happen if they speak up. 

You’ve given talks and Thrive has delivered training on the topic recently – why is it becoming popular now? I think there are two reasons. The first is the Black Lives Matter movement. This is putting diversity, equality and inclusion more on people’s radar, but it’s hard to talk about these things if the people who need to contribute to this conversation, don’t feel psychologically safe to do so. And the second is Covid-19. As more people work from home, it’s revealed that some work teams aren’t very healthy – they don’t connect with each other and it becomes harder to have difficult conversations. Also, job insecurity has increased with Covid-19, and this can make people feel less psychologically safe to speak up about things.

How does an organisation go about creating Psychological Safety? Is it mainly down to the leader? It’s down to almost everyone! In the sessions I’ve been doing, I talk about two characteristics of a psychologically safe team. The first is curiosity. A curious person asks questions of others, assumes the best in others, and assumes that through their questions they can get at something helpful that is not currently being seen. And the second is vulnerability, and this is about members of a team showing as much of themselves as possible. 

For people reading this, how can they get a sense of the psychological safety in their own organisation? Our staff wellbeing survey assesses it, but often it’s something you feel more than you know. We’ve now done training with three large international clients on the topic, and I’ve heard people have a moment of realisation and say “this is what’s wrong with our team!”. And they often pinpoint subtle problems that they think need to change, like how they set up a meeting, or how they talk to someone. But it’s not something you ever achieve, it’s just something you’re always working on. It’s got to be in the fabric of your culture, so it’s less about the individuals who might come and go.

Want to explore Psychological Safety in your organisation? Email us:

Similar Posts