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The Water Cooler

A blog of fresh ideas and findings from organizational leaders and researchers on how they’re making work better, shared regularly.

Why psychological safety matters and what to do about it

Filed under: Teams
Speaking up at work can be difficult. People worry that their boss or colleagues won’t like what they have to say. As a result, people hold back on everything from good ideas to great questions. But by fostering psychological safety, all employees can feel safe to speak up.

Even those at the top of organizational hierarchies are not exempt from the fear of speaking up. Consider this vignette from our field research. A senior executive had recently joined a successful consumer products company. In an early management team meeting, he had serious reservations about a planned takeover. New to the team and conscious of his status as an outsider, he remained silent because the others seemed uniformly enthusiastic.

Later, after the takeover had failed, the team gathered to review what had happened. With the help of a consultant, each executive was asked to reflect on what they might have done to contribute to or avert the failure. The silent executive, now less of an outsider, revealed his prior concerns. Openly apologetic about his past silence, he explained that the others’ enthusiasm left him afraid to be “the skunk at the picnic.”

As this episode reveals, interpersonal risk is a powerful barrier to collaboration and good decision making in organizations. This executive did not feel safe to share his conflicting opinion. Psychological safety describes a climate where people recognize their ability and responsibility to overcome fear and reluctance to speak up with potentially controversial ideas or questions. A lack of psychological safety can be found at the root of many noteworthy organizational errors and failures. In corporations, hospitals, and government agencies, our research has shown that reluctance to offer ideas and expertise undermines many decisions and harms the execution of work that requires judgment or collaboration.

A climate of psychological safety makes it easier for people to speak up with their tentative thoughts. As team members share their ideas, respond respectfully to others’ views, and engage in healthy debate, they establish vital shared expectations about appropriate ways to behave. The extent to which team members truly share these expectations is crucial, because psychological safety is a property of the team as a whole. It is not enough for a few team members to feel comfortable speaking up, even if one of them is the team leader. If others on the team remain hesitant to contribute their views, the team is still likely to suffer the consequences of a psychologically unsafe climate.

For team leaders and other senior members, their own comfort in speaking up is probably less important for establishing psychological safety than the way they respond when other members voice concerns. Critical events, especially early in a team’s life, have an oversized influence on team norms. For example, a single instance of a team leader critiquing, talking over, or otherwise dismissing a concern raised by a junior team member can set a precedent for the whole team, increasing the perceived risks of raising such concerns. It is easy for critical incidents to turn into repeated patterns. Once a norm of “not rocking the boat” becomes entrenched, it takes serious effort to reverse it.

Team leaders should explicitly articulate and encourage the norms they want the team to adopt, but remember that actions speak louder than their words, especially when it comes to creating a climate of psychological safety. Team leaders should not be the only one responsible for creating a healthy climate, however. All team members can actively shape a team’s norm. After all, teams are social systems in which each member plays a role in sustaining or changing the team’s trajectory. For example, in a team where people have tended not to speak up with anything but the safest suggestion, any team member can start to shift this problematic climate.

How can team members foster psychological safety? Simply by starting small. Take small risks by picking spots to challenge one another or contribute a new idea. Ask someone else to weigh in with their expertise, even when (or especially when) you think it might challenge your own thinking. When team members think that their expertise is valued, good things happen. Small risks that end well are emulated. Acknowledging and appreciating a team member who takes such a risk - offers a new idea, admits an error, asks a question - is a powerful tactic for inspiring others to follow suit. This is especially important in diverse teams, where members may not share similar assumptions and experiences.

Slowly but surely, these actions build psychological safety. Even small acts that seem inconsequential at the time can pave the way for larger contributions that carry more weight. By creating a team climate that encourages people to embrace potentially risky contributions, the team will be rewarded with better decisions, motivated members, and improved performance.

Amy C. Edmondson is a professor of leadership and management at the Harvard Business School. Jeff Polzer is a professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the Harvard Business School.

To learn more about team effectiveness, check out the re:Work guide Understand team effectiveness for the full story on Google's team effectiveness research as well as tools to help teams foster psychological safety.