Why Psychological Safety in teams matters

Professor Amy C Edmundson, the eminent thought leader who first brought this concept to life defines psychological safety as ‘a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking’. She describes this as a ‘key factor in healthy teams’ without which teams and individuals are prevented from performing at their best. With workplaces undergoing tumultuous transformations with the rise of remote and hybrid working post pandemic, digitisation and the dawn of Artificial Intelligence (AI), it is timely to revisit why psychological safety matters and consider the consequences of its absence.

Studies have demonstrated that psychological safety leads to team members feeling more engaged and motivated. Employees feel that their contributions matter and this opens up a culture where team members are enabled to speak up without fear of retribution. It follows that this leads to better decision-making where people at any level of an organisation feel more comfortable voicing their opinions and concerns. Moreover, a more diverse range of perspectives can be heard and considered.

The overall organisational impact of psychological safety is that it fosters a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Team members feel comfortable sharing their mistakes and learning from them but more crucially innovation and performance thrive.

What are the downsides of not having psychological safety? There are numerous case studies cited by Edmundson over the years where the consequences of its absences lead to poor performance outcomes both for teams and organisations. In one more notorious case, she uses the infamous example of the US Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003 that disintegrated on re-entry following their space mission. A NASA engineer had spotted a foam strike on the video footage of the take-off days earlier but felt constrained and disempowered by the organisational hierarchy to raise his concerns to his superiors in a mission critical meeting. Edmundson uses the example to highlight how psychological safety might have prevented the disaster, had the highly experienced engineer felt empowered to raise the concerns that he witnessed at the time.

More routinely however, poor psychological safety in workplaces impacts employee wellbeing and give rise to stress, burnout, and ultimately employees leave having not reached their career potential. A culture of silence and fear of speaking up constrains the possibility for innovation and creativity to emerge.

In the era of hyperconnected, dispersed and ever evolving workplaces, where interpersonal connections may have diminished in many settings, leadership capabilities need to be developed throughout organisation hierarchies to foster an open and inclusive culture and a safe space to speak up.

As part of this year’s Ibec HR Leadership Summit – Intelligent Workplaces on 25 October 2023, we will discuss why there has to be a renewed focus on psychological safety in the workplace. Leading our panel of expert speakers and will be Henrik Bresman Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD and the Academic Director of the INSEAD Global Leadership Centre (IGLC).

Henrik is an expert in psychological safety and on leading high-performance teams. He is the co-author of the top-selling book X-Teams: How to Build Teams that Lead, Innovate, and Succeed. More recently, he collaborated with Professor Edmundson on research looking at the importance of having psychological safety in diverse teams. Their work involved looking at the performance outcomes of 62 drug development teams in 6 large pharmaceutical firms in the US.

For further information please visit Ibec HR Leadership Summit 2023