Psychological safety

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Psychological safety is the ability to share one’s thoughts and feelings without risk of damaging one’s reputation or standing.[1] In teams, it refers to team members believing that they can take risks without being shamed by other team members.[2] 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 benefits organizations and teams in many different ways. The following are the most widely empirically supported consequences of a team being psychologically safe:[3]

  1. Improves likelihood that an attempted process innovation will be successful[4]
  2. Increases amount members learn from mistakes[5]
  3. Boosts employee engagement[6][7]
  4. Improves team innovation[8]

Most of the research on the effects of psychological safety has focused on benefits, but there are some drawbacks that have been studied. These include:

  1. Too much of a good thing can make positive effects eventually turn negative
  2. Mediator for unethical behavior
  3. Lowers motivation

Overview[edit]

Psychological safety 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).[9] It has consistently played 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.

History[edit]

The term "psychological safety" is believed to have been first employed and explored by organisational researchers Edgar Schein and Warren Bennis in 1965,[10] defining it as "an atmosphere where one can take chances (which experimentalism implies) without fear and with sufficient protection." (Schein and Bennis, 1965, p. 44) They further define the concept as a "climate which encourages provisional tries and which tolerates failure without retaliation, renunciation, or guilt."(Schein and Bennis, 1965, p. 45)

Point 8 of W. E. Deming's 14 Points For Management, written in 1982, of "Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company" [11] highlights a similar growing realisation, in contrast to previous Taylorist management approaches, that the creation of environments where it is interpersonally safe to raise concerns is of crucial importance to realising high quality business outcomes.

Explicit interest in psychological safety was renewed by Kahn in the 1990s,[12] through qualitative studies which showed that psychological safety enables people to "employ or express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally". This was in parallel with emerging progressive management paradigms at the time such as safety culture and the Toyota Production System (TPS) that introduced a physical representation of psychological safety, the Andon Cord, which explicitly provides employees with the empowerment to raise issues or concerns.[13]

In his book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, Dr. Timothy R. Clark claims that psychological safety is a function of respect and permission. He defines respect as "the general level of regard and esteem we give each other."[14] He defines permission as "the permission given to others to participate as members of a social unit, the degree to which we allow them to influence us and participate in what we are doing." Clark suggests that "psychological safety follows a progression based on the natural sequence of human needs." He outlines this progression through four successive stages: Stage 1) Inclusion Safety, Stage 2) Learner Safety, Stage 3) Contributor Safety, and Stage 4) Challenger Safety.

Social aspects[edit]

Psychological safety is a group-level phenomenon.[9] Research on team effectiveness emphasises input-process-output (IPO) models, and some studies see psychological safety as an input that promotes team performance through team learning as a mediator (process).

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).[15] 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.[16] 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.[2] As a result, they speak up more when they feel psychologically safe and are motivated to improve their team or company.[17][18][19]

Given its current status (in 2022) as an emergent type of safety (e.g. as compared with the older idea of physical safety), it is easy to confuse psychological safety with more well-established concepts such as trust and psychological mindfulness. A primary difference between psychological safety and trust is that psychological safety focuses on a belief about a group norm – emerging from the group's common experiences/perceptions regarding the expected consequences from taking interpersonal risks, in context of its social norms defining the 'correct' in-group behaviours and interactions (e.g. as part of organisational safety culture/climate). Compared with the phenomena of trust, psychological safety has been observed to occur more often in context of larger groups than the typically dyad focused nature of trusting relationships[20](e.g. as a relationship clinicians have in mind with their host organisations[21]); additionally a sort of 'temporally immediate' (i.e. right now) feeling seems to characterise the experience of psychological safety, rather than the typically deferred (i.e. much later) feeling co-present in experiencing trust.[20] These differences between the concepts of psychological safety and trust are becoming established in institutional/organisational study contexts, where trust focuses on a belief and view that one person has about another, whereas psychological safety can be defined by how members of larger social groups think they are viewed by others in the group.[22]

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.

Benefits[edit]

Process innovation success[edit]

Multiple studies have shown businesses’ efforts in process innovation have had moderate to no success and have not improved firm performance.[23] Psychological safety is shown to be an effective and important moderator of the relationship between process innovation and firm performance.[23] This is due to cooperation being an important factor in process innovation. To have cooperation, it’s important to have an environment where people feel safe to share ideas.

Psychological safety is shown to have both direct and indirect effects on “manufacturing process innovation (MPI) performance.”[24] It directly increases MPI performance as there is a greater likelihood of successful implementation of these process innovations when team members feel safe to speak up about problems and use everyone’s knowledge to help solve the problem. It also serves as a mediator as having established processes of sharing information increases psychological safety in teams which leads to MPI performance improvement

Learning from mistakes[edit]

In hospital units, members believing they will not be punished for reporting mistakes were correlated with higher rates of errors being detected.[5] This illustrates a cycle in which members in units with psychological safety discuss errors more, which leads to other members being more willing to report errors in the future as there is less risk associated with reporting mistakes.

Employee engagement[edit]

A study surveying employees at a manufacturing company in China found that psychological safety did not directly affect employee engagement at work, but did affect it indirectly with employees voicing their thoughts as a mediator.[25] When the perceived risks of speaking up are low, meaning psychological safety is high, employees feel more comfortable sharing their opinions which leads to more engagement in their work.

Team innovation[edit]

Drawbacks[edit]

"Too-much-of-a-good-thing" effect[edit]

Much of the research on psychological safety has focused on the benefits it has for teams.[26] However, research in management literature suggests that antecedents normally positively associated with desired outcomes eventually reach a point where the relationship turns negative.[27] This is known as the "too-much-of-a-good-thing" (TMGT) effect. For example, there is an inverted U-shaped relationship between conscientiousness and performance, meaning conscientiousness initially has a positive effect on performance, but too much leads to a decrease in performance.[27] This suggest that negative outcomes could result if there is too much psychological safety.

Mediator for unethical behavior[edit]

One study examining these potential negative outcomes looked at the effects of utilitarianism on unethical behavior in teams with psychological safety has a mediator.[28] The results showed that teams whose members are more utilitarian were more likely to engage in unethical behavior like cheating. This effect was even more pronounced in teams with higher levels of psychological safety.

Lowers motivation[edit]

More recent research highlights the negative effects of psychological safety on work motivation in group members and a further resulting negative effect on taking risks.[29] Higher psychological safety was associated with lower motivation. Through the motivation mechanism, it led to group members being less likely to speak up about new ideas or voice any concerns and also less likely to learn and improve on their processes.

Increasing psychological safety in teams[edit]

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:

  1. Participatory management[2][30]
  2. Inclusive management[7][31]

There are also two aspects of a team that help improve its psychological safety. They are:

  1. A clear team structure where members understand their role on the team[32]
  2. Strong relationships between cohesive team members[33][34]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Kahn, William A. (1990-12-01). "Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work". Academy of Management Journal. 33 (4): 692–724. doi:10.2307/256287. ISSN 0001-4273. JSTOR 256287.
  2. ^ a b c Edmondson, Amy (1 June 1999). "Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams" (PDF). Administrative Science Quarterly. 44 (2): 350–383. doi:10.2307/2666999. JSTOR 2666999. S2CID 32633178.
  3. ^ Newman, Alexander; Donohue, Ross; Eva, Nathan (September 2017). "Psychological safety: A systematic review of the literature". Human Resource Management Review. 27 (3): 521–535. doi:10.1016/j.hrmr.2017.01.001. ISSN 1053-4822.
  4. ^ Baer, Markus; Frese, Michael (1 February 2003). "Innovation is not enough: climates for initiative and psychological safety, process innovations, and firm performance". Journal of Organizational Behavior. 24 (1): 45–68. doi:10.1002/job.179.
  5. ^ a b Edmondson, A. C. (1 March 1996). "Learning from Mistakes is Easier Said Than Done: Group and Organizational Influences on the Detection and Correction of Human Error". The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. 32 (1): 5–28. doi:10.1177/0021886396321001. S2CID 145731259.
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  10. ^ Knowles, Malcolm S. (January 1967). "PERSONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGE THROUGH GROUP METH ODS : THE LABORATORY APPROACH. By Edgar H. Schein and Warren G. Bennis. New York: John Wiley & Son, 1965. 376 pages. $8.25". Adult Education. 17 (2): 126–128. doi:10.1177/074171366701700211. ISSN 0001-8481. S2CID 145746980.
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  24. ^ Lee, Jung Young; Swink, Morgan; Pandejpong, Temyos (13 October 2010). "The Roles of Worker Expertise, Information Sharing Quality, and Psychological Safety in Manufacturing Process Innovation: An Intellectual Capital Perspective: Roles of Worker Expertise, Information Sharing Quality, and Psychological Safety". Production and Operations Management. 20 (4): 556–570. doi:10.1111/j.1937-5956.2010.01172.x.
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