In 2015, Google released the results of a two-year study on team performance. They found that one of the common attributes of all high-performing teams is psychological safety or “the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake.” (Harvard Business Review) Psychological safety has been identified as a “critical driver of high-quality decision making, healthy group dynamics and interpersonal relationships, greater innovation, and more effective execution in organizations.” (Harvard Business Review)
We have been working through the different types of safety that apply to the workplace. So far, we have covered personal safety (biology of safety) and emotional safety. In this article, we will explore the topic of psychological safety, define what it is, key components of psychological safety, how trauma can impact our ability to feel psychologically safe, and how we can grow our sense of psychological safety.
In 1999, Dr. Amy Edmondson of Harvard University published the journal article “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams,” where she introduced the concept of team psychological safety. She defines psychological safety as “a shared belief held by team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” Another article says that psychological safety is present when “employees feel comfortable and secure when voicing ideas, asking leaders questions, or raising concerns. In a psychologically safe environment, employees do not worry about retribution or a negative impact for stepping outside the norm.”
Psychological safety is about sharing thoughts, ideas, concerns, questions, or creative solutions with others without fear of negative consequences to status, self-image, or career. In the workplace, do you feel comfortable asking questions without fearing that people will think you are ignorant or stupid? Do you feel comfortable sharing concerns with co-workers or leaders without worrying they will see you as a troublemaker?
Critical Components of Psychological Safety
Psychological safety comprises three key components: trust, candor, and vulnerability.
“Trust can be defined as the extent to which we hold expectations of others in the face of uncertainty about their motives, and yet are willing to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.” While trust is a critical component of psychological safety, it is not the same.
Ultimately, trust is related to one person’s beliefs toward another individual, while psychological safety is related to an individual’s beliefs about a group. Science for Work created an excellent diagram that shows the difference between the two.
Candor is the quality of being open and honest in expression. This is the ability to speak directly and forthrightly. There is another term floating around called “radical candor.” Radical candor is the ability to care personally and challenge directly. This is not about telling the other person what they want to hear or patting someone on the back when they don’t deserve it. Instead, it is about truth-telling and communicating honestly, even if that means you have some concerns.
Brene Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. In her book, Braving the Wilderness, she says, “But vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our most accurate measure of courage. When the barrier is our belief about vulnerability, the question becomes: Are we willing to show up and be seen when we can’t control the outcome? When the barrier to vulnerability is about safety, the question becomes: Are we willing to create courageous spaces so we can be fully seen?” (Brown, Brené. Braving the Wilderness (p. 154). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)
How Trauma Impacts our Ability to Feel Psychologically Safe
As trauma survivors, there are inherent difficulties that affect our ability to feel psychologically safe. Perhaps reading the critical components for psychological safety mentioned above, you already suspect this could be a problem. There is a reason for that, and it is not because you are flawed or broken.
The first reason is the interpersonal nature of childhood trauma in general. Childhood trauma is often committed by people a child should be able to trust. Our ability to trust other humans is significantly impacted by the abuse we suffered. It takes a lot for us to trust people, even our therapists, at times. This is totally understandable and expected. Part of the healing process is about learning to trust others.
Core Beliefs About Ourselves/Others
The second reason this is difficult is because of the core beliefs we have about ourselves and others. If we see ourselves as broken, worthless, stupid, unworthy, or less than others, we may not have the courage to share our thoughts and opinions with others. We may struggle with imposter syndrome and wonder why we were asked to be part of the group in the first place.
Additionally, our core beliefs about others may make this rather challenging. If I believe that certain people in the group are out to steal my ideas, I might be reluctant to share them.
Coping Strategies Impacting our Ability to be Vulnerable
The very thought of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable as trauma survivors are enough to make one cringe. For us, vulnerability is not safe, or it hasn’t been safe to be vulnerable in the past. When we use coping strategies to feel safe, we are fundamentally closing ourselves off from vulnerability.
Vulnerability and risk-taking are not normally at the top of a trauma survivor’s skill list. Actually, it is something that is avoided, like the plague.
Growing our Psychological Safety in the Workplace
Just because we have challenges with the components of psychological safety does not mean that it is impossible, but it will take some work. You already know that trauma has caused some obstacles in our lives; that is a no-brainer. You may have yet to realize that you can overcome these obstacles. It is within your power to do that. Here are some recommendations for growing your psychological safety in the workplace.
If psychological safety is about trusting the team, start with one person and work on building trust with one team member. For some, even this seems like a monumental task. Start small. If that is too big of a step for you, try meeting for coffee or a virtual coffee. Remember to go slow. Our trauma wants us to move fast, but healing comes from staying within our window of tolerance, which means moving slowly.
Take Personal Responsibility for Your Own Baggage
This might be hard to hear, but each one of us needs to take responsibility for the baggage we bring to the table. We should not assume that it is the other person’s fault that we can’t trust them or the team. Remember, healing trauma is an inside job.
Conversely, however, we should not always assume everything is our fault. Every member of a group brings their own baggage into a group. We are not the only ones with challenges. Perhaps the group is not healthy, or another member is not healthy. If we sense something is wrong, and our Spidey senses are tingling, we need to check in with other group members to see whether they have the same reactions.
Leverage our Resiliency in Risk Taking
One of the superpowers all trauma survivors have is resiliency. Resilience is the ability to flexibly adapt to challenging, adverse, or traumatic life events. The fact that we survived our childhood provides sufficient evidence to prove to ourselves that we are indeed resilient.
We know how to adapt. We are hypervigilant by nature and capable of discerning whether something is a big or small risk. Sharing an idea with three co-workers in a meeting is low risk. Sharing an “out of the box” risk with a large group of executives might be riskier than is wise. Use discernment, but don’t stop taking risks. No risk, no reward.
Questions for further consideration
- How open are you to learning to trust others in the workplace?
- What are your personal obstacles keeping you from having psychological safety in the workplace?
- What are 1–2 things you can do to address those obstacles?
- Amy C. Edmondson and Per Hugander. “4 Steps to Boost Psychological Safety at Your Workplace.” Harvard Business Review. June 22, 2021.
- Snow, Shane. “How Psychological Safety Actually Works.” Forbes. May 4, 2020.
- Edmondson, Amy, Boyatzis, Richard, De Smet, Aaron, Schaninger, Bill. “Psychological safety, emotional intelligence, and leadership in a time of flux.” McKinsey Quarterly. July 2, 2020.
Believer. Leader. Learner. Advocate. Writer. Speaker. Coach. Mentor. Triathlete. Encourager. Survivor.
Most of all, I am a fellow traveler on the rocky road called, Trauma Recovery. My mission is to minimize the effects of trauma for survivors in the workplace.