Psychological Safety: a necessity for organizational success

psychological safety

What is psychological safety? 

Psychological Safety is defined as, “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn, 1990). In a psychologically safe environment, individuals speak up, share their opinions and ideas openly, take risks, admit failures, learn from the failures, and have open honest discussions.

Extensive research (of more than a few decades) on psychology has been done by Amy C. Edmondson, a Harvard Business School Professor. Her most recent podcast with HBR was featured earlier this year; “Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace” is worth hearing.

What does research say about it?

  • Gallup data revealed that with psychology, “organizations could realize a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents, and a 12% increase in productivity.”
  • Google’s ‘Project Aristotle’ study shows that teams with high rates of psychological safety perform better and implement diverse ideas.  
  • Amy Edmondson’s research reveals that “psychological safety predicts quality improvements, learning behavior and productivity.”
  • Various empirical research studies highlight that psychological safety fosters team innovation and employee engagement. 

Is psychological safety universally applicable across different national cultures?

Yes, it is. Companies are operating at a transnational level making disruptive innovation global. Organizations are striving towards building new products/solutions and offering new services to customers across the globe. It’s but natural that organization members need to exchange ideas, collaborate in harmony, experiment, and have candid conversations about risks, failures, and success. This is possible only when companies make psychological safety a part of their culture, irrespective of high-low power distance and hierarchical or flat structure.

Edmondson aptly mentions, “psychological safety is just as important for excellence in any organization around the world. It’s just harder to get there.”

Psychological safety: the bedrock of Agile HR

Agile HR is about responding to human capital needs (at an organization, team, and individual level) in a quick, positive, and engaging way. To make this happen, it should be a key component of Agile HR as research highlights its importance in fostering innovation, engagement, and constructive team culture – a must in today’s disruptive business landscape.   

HR leaders and practitioners should collaborate with their business peers to build a culture of psychological safety. However, before this cross-collaboration, it’s important for HR leaders and their internal team to walk the talk and practice what they preach. Why? In most workplaces, it’s very common to hear phrases like, “HR has no voice”. This can be attributed to structural and/or behavioral issues at a leadership level and/or within the HR function. In many instances, HR comes in its way to speed up the decision-making process or implement new practices or create a psychological safety environment. 

Let’s take recruitment for instance. Often, there is a lack of collaboration among the key stakeholders involved in the hiring process. How many members step up to voice their concerns and opinions during the hiring process? Do they have candid discussions about the key variables that are causing the delay in the hiring process? Do members feel safe and can own up to the fact that their schedules or work style creates a bottleneck for talent fulfillment? In a time where organisations are battling it out over talent, a time where candidates have a choice in who to work for, employer brand has never been more critical. The stakeholders must be on the same page about each phase and their involvement within the hiring process.

Performance appraisal. What is the purpose of performance appraisal in a company? Is this purpose valued and shared by people across all levels within the organization? Does the nature of work within the organization support the purpose? HR leaders need to use such powerful questions to encourage cooperation and ideation across their teams so that individuals feel safe to engage, trust and share concerns and ideas openly. 

Building an organizational culture of psychological safety is highly important in today’s economy and it should begin with executives and leadership teams. Also, its HR’s responsibility to engage their teams and employees in ideation, teamwork, and learning. Setting examples within one’s team can ignite similar model behaviors across the organization. “It’s important to note that psychological safety is a necessary but not sufficient condition for organizational learning, innovation, or excellence.

, Published on January 21, 2021