Psychological safety as a key factor to quality and productivity of Organizations

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Trust is a key factor for an improved performance in teams, according to Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google. High performance teams at Google share a common trait: psychological safety, the weightless environment that allows everyone to express themselves transparently, with never feeling judged by any means. This can be translated in, for example, not believing that they will be punished when they make a mistake, ask a basic question, or share a different opinion. Studies show that psychological safety stimulates moderate risk taking, creativity and boldness, that constitute key ingredients to market breakthroughs. People become more resilient, open-minded, persistent and motivated when they feel safe. The capacity of humor increases, such as solution-finding, and “thinking outside the box” mechanisms are enhanced. This safety is perceived by people’s bodies and they have a biological response to it. The people’s manager that has this factor into account, will definitely have success in managing his workers, highly increasing the personal and organizational performance and well-being.

Core Concept

Schein and Bennis defined psychological safety as the awareness of individuals of feeling secure and confident in their skills to manage change.[1] Posteriorly, Kahn stated that psychological safety is: “the feeling able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career”, and also argued that employees tend to feel more psychological safe when they are in a trusting and supportive environment[2]. More recently, Edmondson stated that psychological safety is more of a team-level climate, quoting: “it is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking” [3].

Psychological safety is then characterized by the individuals’ perception of the consequences of interpersonal risks inside the workplace. It takes into account the pre-made beliefs that individuals have regarding the reactions to their interactions (such as questions, suggestions, asking for feedback or reporting an error), and their willingness to overcome challenges through effective communication. [3] These already built beliefs are often tacit, and in most working environments there are not many opportunities to give the deserved attention by the whole team. Although sometimes these tacit beliefs may be exposed and discussed in a team meeting or interpersonal conversation, it will not affect the essence of the psychological safety of that environment. [3]

In fact, when such activities occur, they can be faced as just a protocol of an HR agenda that is not taken seriously, and the team ends up missing the point of that discussion. This is often a common trait among entities with a dubious atmosphere of psychological safety.

Psychological safety vs danger mechanisms [4]

Psychological safety and trust are different

Besides these two concepts have so much in common, they do not mean the same. Although it is easier to develop a psychological safe environment when there is trust and respect among workers, these are considered to be two different concepts. A key aspect that distinguishes them is that trust is experienced at an individual level, and during a period of time, while psychological safety exists at a group level, and it is experienced immediately in several different occurrences. In other words, Psychological safety goes for a situation where a worker believes his group will behave respectfully to the interaction he is about to make, even if they will not agree with it. While trust goes for a situation where a worker believes that someone will act in a certain way in the future. [5]


To address the most relevant outcomes of psychological safety, the theories from the work of Schein and Bennis (1965), Kahn (1990), and Edmondson (1999) will be the basis of this assessment. Kahn's work was more focused on behavioral outcomes of psychological safety, such as engagement and valuable job attitudes. Edmondson, Schein and Bennis focused more on a cognitive approach to the benefits of psychological safety, where it was identified as a necessary state for learning and change to take place. Therefore, six important benefits will be highlighted in this section, that are the positive relation of Psychological safety with work engagement, task performance, information sharing, citizenship behaviors, creativity, learning behavior. Therefore, Psychological safety is positevely related to: [6]

Work engagement

Kahn’s work states Psychological safety as a necessary condition to work engagement, it constitutes “the harnessing of organization members” to employees’ work roles. People that are work engaged are considered to be individuals that express themselves physically, cognitively and emotionally in their jobs. Further work showed that this state is brought up by being able to make interventions without the fear of negative consequences. [6]

Task performance

Studies show that it minimizes the negative consequences, and sub-consequences of making mistakes or taking initiatives, which fosters employees and groups to focus on what brings improved performance. [6]

Information sharing

Information sharing between group members has been spotted as one of the main processes that lead to learning and change within organizations. In order for this information sharing to take place, workers must perceive that the working environment encourages collaboration and feedback proactivity. It was found that a psychological safe environment is positively related to information sharing. [6]

Citizenship behaviors

citizenship behaviors stand for practices that go beyond the worker’s role prescriptions, but aid in group and organizational context. Psychological safety is positively correlated with this behavior, since employees feel safer to speak their minds, bring up suggestions and challenge the current way of doing things. This will end up in an increased propensity for giving suggestions of work practices, or simple advice, from an employee to its colleagues. [6]


A Psychological safe environment will augment the levels of experimentation, at a horizontal level. By experimenting, workers get in contact with new practices and ways of doing things, triggering new creative brain processes that will challenge the way they have been doing things, fostering creativity inside that working environment. [6]

Learning behavior

Studies show that it boosts individual and team learning behavior. A psychological safe workplace eliminates employees’ fear of failure and anxiety, which are conditions that block cognitive learning processes. By this, workers can be way more focused on improving themselves, than worried about how will others react to their actions. [6]


Lead by setting the example

This is a mindset that should be implemented from senior management, down to small teams leaders and managers. A proactive leadership, characterized by asking upward feedback, taking responsibility for managerial mistakes, having an open-minded approach to different opinions and ideas, be accessible, encourage discussions and brain-storming sessions is one of the key ingredients for promoting an healthy psychological environment across an organization. [4]

Encourage active listening

It is crucial that employees feel that they are important, and that their ideas and beliefs are carefully listened and discussed, in order to provide maximum contribute to the team. It is not enough to only ask for people to share their ideas, if they do not have a followed discussion and reasoning about them. Strategies like encouraging other members to give their opinions about a topic, proactively ask questions, repeating the belief that was transmitted to ensure understanding, or even leaving phones at the door during a meeting are valuable practices when promoting active listening in the team. [4]

Create a safe environment

People need to feel comfortable when speaking their minds, and not being apprehensive regarding other persons’ judgment. A set of established, simple rules can significantly help improving the promotion of this atmosphere, such as not interrupting another member’s speech, not placing blame or stimulating creative contributions from everyone with relevant brain-storming sessions. [4]

Share belonging cues

Most people have an innate capacity for reading cues. For many workers to thrive, it is essential that their feelings of trust and belonging are often reinforced and refreshed. To ensure this, it is recommended to communicate with behavior cues such as establishing eye contact, turn sharing and attention, and body language. By doing this, people will feel they are safe in that environment, they can push themselves and know that their colleagues will be glad to hear their efforts and achievements, ending up feeling like a special part of the group that is trusted by its surroundings. [7]

Develop an open mindset

An open mindset is desirable to promote a respectful relationship between team-members, eliminating misunderstandings and judgmental thoughts. Being aware of the importance of different perspectives is a key-factor when promoting an open mindset environment. Also, it is extremely relevant that there is a global understanding on how to receive input from others. Maybe there is someone more shy working with an extrovert, and the same word will have different meanings for them. It is the job of the team leader to understand its teams qualities and limitations from a third-eye perspective, and to ensure that everyone is aware of the teams’ traits and social dynamics. Another important aspect is to encourage teams to see feedback as a great opportunity for learning, as an helping mechanism instead of a criticizing one. By doing so, ideas will be able to rise faster and stronger, and processes will become more reliable and robust. [4]


Psychological safety is not the same as being nice

Working in a psychological safe workplace does not mean that your co-workers will always smile and wave at each other, providing unconditional support and always agreeing with each other. It is not about being “nice”, in fact, some people may say it's kind of the opposite. It relies on providing an environment that is able to successfully handle disagreements, making the highly productive, and promote a free exchange of ideas. Conflicts will always happen in the workplace, and the key is not to avoid it, but to take good advantage of it. [5]

Psychological safety is not about personality

Psychological safety can be commonly mistaken with being an extrovert. Mainly due to the direct correlation between shyness and low number of interventions in the workplace. In fact, psychological safety refers to the working climate, creating an environment that will affect everyone regardless their personality. People will feel safe when voicing their ideas and concerns, regardless of whether they are extroverted or introverted. [5]

Psychological safety Is not related with lowering performance standards

A psychological safe environment has nothing to do with being satisfied by everything the employees deliver. It does not mean that workers are not expected to meet high standards or deadlines. Psycholigcal safety relies on comfort regarding your social interactions and management of expectations, but not on an overall comfortableness on the workplace, since this would start stimulating a state of sloppiness concerning work deliveries and reaching milestones. A Psychological safety promotes frankness and openness, creating a pure environment of mutual respect. [5]

The Competitive Imperative for Learning [8]

Annotated Biography

The following list provides resources for further research and study on the Psychological Safety conceptualization, application and understanding:

  • Edmondson, Amy C (1999): The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth

One of the most modern works regarding the on this topic. Focuses more on Psychological Safety in Organizations, explaining how can it be the key to rganizational learning. It Defines its importance inside companies and managerial processes, as well as a good explanation on how fragile is psychological safety and how it needs to be constinously renewed.

  • Kahn, William A (1990): Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work

In this literary work, Kahn approached Psychological Safety from an individual perspective and tries to extrapolate it to the working environment. It addresses three main psychological conditions, meaningfulness, safety, and availability, and their contextual and individual sources.

  • Schein, Edgar H.; Bennis, Warren G. (1965). Personal and organizational change through group methods

This work is more focused on a cognitive approach to the benefits of psychological safety, where it was identified as a necessary state for learning and change to take place. It focuses a lot more on its conceptualization and understanding of this newly introduced concept for that time.


  1. Schein, E., & Bennis, W. (1965). Personal and Organizational Change through Group Methods. New York: Wiley.
  2. Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of Management Journal, 33(4), 692-724.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Edmondson, A. (1999a). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Visited: 20/02/2021.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Book review: “The Fearless Organization” by Amy Edmondson. Visited: 20/02/2021.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 Psychological Safety: A Meta‐Analytic Review and Extension.
  7. How to ensure psychological safety at work?. Visited: 27/02/2021.
  8. Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organisation, p. 20.
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