How ‘psychological safety’ helps high-performing teams stand out

A UB School of Management doctoral researcher explores why psychological safety is criticaland how leaders develop it in teams

Woman leads a brainstorming session.

By Snehal Hora

Snehal Hora
Snehal Hora
Doctoral Student
UB School of Management

Why do brilliant minds choose to remain silent when a project is failing? Why do creative individuals hold back ideas when the team needs them?

What causes some teams to fail while others thrive?

Decades of research, combined with Google’s two-year study on improving team performance, solves these mysteries. Despite popular belief that team members’ experience, education and IQ matter most, findings reveal “psychological safety” may be what sets high-performing teams apart from the rest.

Why a “safe space” matters

Defined as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, psychological safety focuses on the importance of creating a workplace culture where employees feel comfortable—even motivated—to be themselves, speak up and exchange ideas without fear of rejection, ridicule or negative consequences to their reputation, status or career.

A psychologically safe workplace minimizes employees’ fear of challenging the status quo, and fosters engagement, commitment to the organization and job satisfaction. When employees feel safe in their team, they can focus on collaborating, learning, exchanging information and making novel suggestions for improvement. Consequently, employee performance, creativity, citizenship behaviors and team information-sharing all improve.

While psychological safety benefits all employees, the “safe space” it provides is particularly key for those who, correctly or not, may be perceived as lower status members in an organization. For instance, our research suggests psychological safety is instrumental in boosting women’s confidence that they have what it takes to be creative and will not be ridiculed or punished for offering new ideas, thus increasing their creative performance. In doing so, psychological safety promotes an egalitarian work culture by equalizing the value of its members’ contributions, irrespective of their gender, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, nationality, age, education or perceived status in the organization or society.

How to improve your work culture

Despite the significance of psychological safety, a 2012 survey by Ipsos revealed that only 47% of employees in 24 countries characterize their workplace as a “psychologically safe and healthy environment to work in.” This is unfortunate, both for employees and their organizations, as they leave considerable potential untapped if the situation is not rectified.

Organizations must make deliberate efforts to foster a psychologically safe work environment, and research suggests numerous interventions they can use to do so. Ultimately, perceptions of psychological safety start at the top. An unsupportive leader signals that speaking up might be risky or harmful. A supportive leader, however, nurtures a feeling of mutual trust, respect and openness that promotes risk-taking.

According to research, to reinforce perceptions of a psychologically safe environment, leaders should:

  • Model openness and fallibility: Leaders set an example for what is expected and acceptable, and team members tend to imitate them. If a leader is authoritarian, cold and defensive, team members will follow and refrain from challenging the status quo. On the other hand, leaders who employ a democratic leadership style, demonstrate vulnerability, admit mistakes and welcome questions and suggestions are likely to foster an environment where team members feel comfortable risking mistakes and do not fear hurting their reputation in discussing those mistakes.
  • Be available and approachable: Leaders who are accessible and approachable minimize barriers that may inhibit discussion. Such leaders signal that the team is a safe place for its members, where free exchange of ideas is encouraged. An “open door” policy is one way leaders can show they actively pursue being challenged and it is acceptable to innovate.
  • Be inclusive: Leaders can improve psychological safety by explicitly seeking team members’ perspective and feedback. By both inviting and appreciating others’ input, leaders show they value and respect diverse opinions, and the team is an inclusive, welcoming space for everyone. Conversely, when leaders act in punitive ways or discourage members from sharing their viewpoints, verbally or otherwise, team members tend to fear potential repercussions and refrain from voicing concerns or suggestions.

Beyond the leader, employees and the organization themselves are instrumental in fostering a supportive work culture.

  • Develop trust and respect among team members: Teams with high levels of social support, caring and trust tend to perceive high levels of psychological safety. In teams characterized by mutual respect, members are likely to believe they will receive the benefit of the doubt, thus motivating them to engage in risky processes without fearing negative consequences. To foster a cohesive team culture, focus training efforts on teamwork and developing effective relationships.
  • Consider how teams and roles are designed: Increased job autonomy suggests the leader and organization trust employees to make important decisions. Clearly communicating employees’ roles gives them a better understanding of what is expected of them. And, interdependent work has been known to positively influence psychological safety, as employees trust, respect and rely on one another to accomplish tasks.
  • Practice and improve: Though not relevant for all work settings, creating trials or simulations has been associated with improving psychological safety. Allow employees to engage in dry runs to understand potential problems and make mistakes, without bearing the real financial or medical burdens. To team members, practice runs convey the significance of learning, the expectation that getting it right the first time is not always possible, and that the team and organization are safe places for making mistakes.

Snehal Hora is a doctoral candidate in the University at Buffalo School of Management’s Organization and Human Resources Department. With an MBA in human resources management, Hora teaches organizational behavior and conducts research on how and why men and women differ in creativity, with the ultimate goal of identifying simple and effective solutions to bridge the gender gap in creativity.

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