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Psychological safety is being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career (Kahn 1990, p. 708). It can be defined as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. 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 is about removing fear from human interaction and replacing it with respect and permission. It has been an important discussion area in the field of psychology, behavioral management, leadership, teams, and healthcare. 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 recent years, it has become a more significant organizational phenomenon due to the increased necessity of learning and innovation.
Psychological Safety in a Social Unit
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
It is possible to quantitatively measure psychological safety on a team by scoring agreement with certain statements, where higher agreement correlates strongly with increased psychological safety:
- On this team, I understand what is expected of me.
- We value outcomes more than outputs or inputs, and nobody needs to “look busy”.
- If I make a mistake on this team, it is never held against me.
- When something goes wrong, we work as a team to find the systemic cause.
- All members of this team feel able to bring up problems and tough issues.
- Members of this team never reject others for being different and nobody is left out.
- It is safe for me to take a risk on this team.
- It is easy for me to ask other members of this team for help.
- Nobody on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
- Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.
Research by Google's Project Aristotle and the DORA State Of DevOps annual report show that psychological safety is the single most important factor for increased performance in teams, both from a Software Development and whole-organisation perspectives. The DevOps approach to modern software delivery requires engineers to possess psychological safety, as one of the key "Three Ways" of DevOps is "Feedback Loops", which require that engineers can make, and admit, mistakes in order to learn from them. Without psychological safety, those mistakes would remain hidden, and unlearned from.
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