Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as "being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career" (Kahn 1990, p. 708). In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected. It is also the most studied enabling condition in group dynamics and team learning research.
Psychological safety has been an important discussion area in the field of psychology, management, healthcare and behavioral management. Results from a number of empirical studies conducted in various regions and countries show that psychological safety plays an important role in workplace effectiveness (Edmondson and Lei, 2014). It has been consistently playing an important role by facilitating ideas and activities to a shared enterprise. It also enables teams and organizations to learn and perform and in the recent years, it has become a more significant organizational phenomenon due to increased necessity of learning and innovation.
Psychological safety is a group-level phenomenon (Edmondson, 2014). Psychological safety in the group level as a model of team effectiveness uses some forms of input-process-output (IPO) model. Psychological safety leads to team performance through team learning as a mediator or channel compared to 'process variables' in input-process-output model. A significant antecedent of psychological safety is trust (input) which plays an important role in knowledge sharing as well as a mediating (process) role partially (Zhang et al., 2010). A number of studies show that psychological safety is a mediator of relationships between antecedent (similar to 'input variables' in the input-process-output model) including organizational context, team characteristics and team leadership, and outcomes (similar to 'output variables' in IPO model) of innovation, performance, learning, and improvement in or by a team. Although psychological safety has a significant effect as a mediator in explaining team outcomes, it also plays a role as a moderator. Here, psychological safety as a mediator acts as an input in case of teamwork as well as process or emergent state. Due to the boundary condition, it may not help teams to learn when particular conditions such as absence of interdependence are supporting teamwork.
When team members are motivated at work and want to share an idea for improving performance, they frequently do not speak up because they fear that they will be harshly judged. When psychological safety is present, team members think less about the potential negative consequences of expressing a new or different idea than they would otherwise. As a result, they speak up more when they feel psychologically safe and are motivated to improve their team or company.
Psychological safety is often confused with other concepts such as trust and psychological mindfulness. The primary differences between psychological safety and trust are that psychological safety focuses on a belief about a group norm, but trust focuses on a belief that one person has about another. Also, psychological safety is defined by how group members think they are viewed by others in the group, but trust is defined by how one views another.
Mindfulness is also different from psychological safety in that mindfulness is about being aware of one's surroundings but psychological safety is focused on being respected in a group. Moreover, the most studied result of psychological safety, team learning, is defined as a group adjusting to its surrounding through outwardly sharing observations about their environment. However, mindfulness is an individual becoming internally enlightened about his/her environment.
Psychological safety benefits organizations and teams in many different ways. The following are the most widely empirically supported consequences of a team being psychologically safe:
- Improves likelihood that an attempted process innovation will be successful
- Increases amount members learn from mistakes
- Boosts employee engagement
- Improves team innovation
Leaders as well as some aspects of the team can increase team members' psychological safety. Two aspects of leadership have been shown to be particularly instrumental in creating a psychologically safe team. They are leaders using:
There are also two aspects of a team that help improve its psychological safety. They are:
- A clear team structure where members understand their role on the team
- Strong relationships between cohesive team members
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