Psychological Safety

Andrea always thought of herself as someone who spoke her mind. At college she enjoyed it when people looked shocked at her cutting remarks. At her first job she stood out among the new crop of hires for her sense of humor and her habit of saying out loud what others would only suggest.

In her previous job, Andrea’s sense of humor went over well. Her boss saw her as a bright light and encouraged her.

Her current job is something quite different.

A sense of humor just doesn’t seem to fit at all. Making jokes about anything related to the job is out of the question. Everyone is very careful. After Andrea made one mild quip at a staff meeting, her supervisor, Liz, said, “Andrea, we don’t appreciate a cavalier attitude around here.”

It was like a splash of cold water. Andrea wasn’t sure what exactly she was doing wrong. She felt nervous. It seemed likely that the rather dull demeanor of her coworkers was due to fear rather than shyness.

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety is a valuable thing.

It means that people feel confident that they can take risks at work. If they try something new, their supervisor and coworkers will support their efforts. They will appreciate their attempts at creativity and tolerate some setbacks when things become challenging.

Psychological safety also means that people feel free to express their opinions. They are confident that others will appreciate their contributions or at least they will not criticize or reprimand them for speaking their minds, even on tough issues.

Andrea does not feel safe. It doesn’t seem that her coworkers feel safe either.

And when you think about it, Liz, the supervisor, does not feel safe either. Her actions suggest that she lacks the confidence necessary to support an open dialogue among team members. Our survey data indicates that the biggest factor eroding psychological safety is a poor working relationship with one’s boss.


Suppressing open dialogue carries significant costs. The knowledge and perspectives of employees are critical resources for any organization. In the contemporary economy, creativity and fresh ideas define a competitive advantage.

One Strategy

A critical issue for any strategy to increase psychological safety is that people are already afraid to take risks. These conditions call for small steps, especially for a new hire, such as Andrea.

In the course of working with her colleagues, Andrea looks for opportunities to talk about work on a one-to-one basis. The point of these conversations is to establish Andrea as a safe and trustworthy coworker. Through this phase, Andrea maintains strict confidentiality about these conversations, even that she has spoken with anyone.

In taking this approach, Andrea is taking a long, patient road. It follows the idea that building on the positive is the most effective strategy, but that it doesn’t happen instantly.

A whole other strategy is to help Liz to loosen up. That’s the subject of a later post.

Have you ever tried to turn around a group culture?

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