The relevance of psychological safety

I’ve never given too much thought to “psychological safety”. It’s something I’d read about, and did see as probably interesting, but many of my day to day concerns seemed to centre on more urgent matters. Also—and perhaps most of all—the term “psychological safety” didn’t fit very well with me, because it seemed to be turning the workplace into some kind of academic experiment, and as a result I don’t think I took the time to understand it.

However, I recently read an article by Timon Ruban which made it very relevant to me, and so this is the time to define the term: the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Perhaps this is still a bit academic, but let’s give some examples: the belief that it’s okay to, say, speak up in a meeting, approach someone you wouldn’t normally approach, or contribute to a Slack discussion, without worrying about unreasonable adverse consequences. Very, very roughly, it’s about being comfortable and confident in your own workplace.

That’s a really important attribute of a workplace and a workplace culture, and if we want to get the best out of each other and our teams then we do need psychological safety.

Also, I’ve been reading recently about radical candour, and the idea of giving specific, sometimes negative, feedback to colleagues. That’s quite difficult to do, but done well it can help everyone improve. How can we create a culture where that feedback is received well? One big contribution would be to ensure psychological safety.

I’m still not keen on the phrase itself. But the idea of creating a workplace culture where people feel confident and comfortable has to be of long term benefit to everyone.

Photo by Jim Forest

2 thoughts on “The relevance of psychological safety

  1. Reading De Marco’s ‘The Deadline’ recently (1997), he makes very salient points about negative reinforcement:
    – threats are an imperfect way to motivate performance
    – if the target doesn’t get met, you may actually have to make good on your threats

    This lack of safety was originally framed as a manager – worker dynamic; it’s good to see people recognizing that it’s as much a peer group factor (possibly more).

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