Why You Should Care About Psychological Safety in the Workplace Psychological safety is a simple but powerful - and absolutely necessary - part of taking care of your people, your company and your reputation. Here's why.
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If there is one single attribute that I emphasize in both my work as an attorney and my work as an organizational effectiveness consultant, it's safety.
My job as an entertainment attorney is to protect people's creative processes, their intellectual property, their energy and their time. In protecting these things, I provide the safety for artists, musicians and people working in creative and creative-adjacent spaces to focus on their craft, rather than the legalities and logistics of running a business that can be a headache, especially when it's not your jam. In this way, safety works in tandem with innovation and allows me to provide my clients not just legal services, but also security and peace of mind.
Similarly, in my work as a leadership and organizational effectiveness consultant, safety is also of paramount importance for people to be able to do their best work.
Origins of psychological safety
Dr. Amy Edmondson, novartis professor of leadership and management at the Harvard Business School, is the foremost researcher and author of a concept called "psychological safety." After spending years researching in research hospitals and other public institutions, Edmondson coined this term for "a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking."
In other words, a team is only psychologically safe if all members feel they can be vulnerable and authentic without fear of humiliation or loss of status. Many years after Edmonson first wrote and published on this concept, it became part of a long-term research study conducted by Google called Project Aristotle.
In this study, Google discovered that it didn't matter who was on a team — rocks stars, PhDs, Rhodes scholars — what mattered was how they treated each other. Project Aristotle proved definitively that psychological safety was the number one characteristic of a high-performing team.
Since then, more organizations have turned their focus toward building these kinds of teams, but there is still a lot of work to be done. For one, many leaders still view it as a "nice to have" and not the "must-have" that it is for effective, productive work environments. Some of this is down to a simple lack of understanding, but some of it is due to leaders and organizations not seeing it as a vital way of working or see it as good for business.
This is surprising since, from a legal perspective, there is a great deal about psychological safety that just makes sense when it comes to protecting businesses and organizations from bad publicity, loss of revenue and even loss of public goodwill that so many companies rely on — especially in the age of ubiquitous social media.
Psychological safety encourages honesty
When a team is psychologically safe, one of the first forms of collaboration to emerge is more open communication. Information sharing becomes more frequent. Trust grows to the point where people begin to be open, honest and vulnerable within the team dynamic. With safety comes the ability to admit mistakes, to express uncertainty and to ask for help without fear of judgment. For teams lacking psychological safety, mistakes are often swept under the rug and can lead to the same mistakes — or even different, more costly ones — being made in the future.
Any organization concerned about efficiency, cost-saving and productivity should be urgently creating a psychologically-safe environment for their people. It saves time and money, and sometimes, it even helps you save face when your team helps you avoid those embarrassing and costly mistakes.
Psychological safety decreases attrition and saves money
Honesty means mistakes can be caught — and money can be saved — before projects go off the rails or budgets get blown out of the water. Similarly, a safe team environment saves the business the cost and trouble of replacing disengaged employees.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported that on average it costs a company six to nine months of an employee's salary to replace him or her. For an employee making $60,000 per year, that comes out to $30,000 to $45,000 in recruiting and training costs.
Attrition is expensive. Psychological safety is the answer.
Employees who feel safe to take risks and who believe that their authentic selves are welcome in the workplace are nearly five times more likely to stay on and give their best work to their team. Engaged teams are 21% more profitable for their companies, and an overwhelming 96% of employees want empathetic bosses and managers creating safe and inclusive places to work. To keep your people, you must respect your people, and it starts with making them safe.
Psychological safety can be the difference between life and death
In Edmonson's earliest work at research hospitals, a nurse's ability to ask a doctor for feedback often meant the difference between life and death. In some cases, a doctor refusing to be "second-guessed" by a nurse meant a wrong dosage was given or the wrong procedure was performed. Though many of us do not work in environments with such high-risk activities, it still behooves us to be aware that all mistakes — no matter how low-stakes they may seem — carry risk.
When Wells Fargo combined sales goals with incentives that emphasized customer services, employees panicked and began creating fraudulent accounts in order to meet the wildly unrealistic goals. This was a colossal failure of psychological safety culture, and the company is now embroiled in fraud lawsuits and faced with fines up to $3 billion.
Safety is a simple, but powerful and absolutely necessary part of taking care of your people, your company, your reputation, and sometimes your very life. It's not just warm-fuzzy, soft skills nonsense. It's the best thing you can do to protect your people and your company from losses of all kinds.