Pushing the Boundaries of Workplace Psychological Safety

May 30, 2023
By Melanie Stern

Consider the word “safety.” Searching on the internet can generate varied descriptions, some rooted in “feeling.” However, when employees are asked about safety in the workplace, they typically refer to a physical representation: an office building’s construction, on-site security procedures, training and software.

But a different perspective on safety in the workplace is garnering attention — and it comes as a backlash to opposing corporate cultures, from antiquated fear-based practices or the push for safe spaces. 

There can be a dichotomy between environments and goals when integrating safety into a supply management organization. For example, disruption amid safe spaces, distrust while seeking transparency, and inconsistencies while requiring accountability. Given today’s complex business environments and continuing disruptions, employees and leadership can benefit from grounding their stress in a workplace psychological safety net. 

What Is Psychological Safety?

The terminology was coined in 1954 by Carl Rogers, a clinical psychologist, while studying creativity and the conditions needed to foster it. Over the next decade, psychological safety was brought into the fold of corporate field management. By the 1990s, business leaders took greater notice of its merits, as they questioned the employee-based gaps between personal engagement and work disengagement.

Ultimately, a study of clinical teams by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, Ph.D., found that teams with better outcomes admitted making more mistakes, while those with less positive outcomes were more likely to hide mistakes. Edmondson’s findings led to the current meaning of psychological safety: the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. 

Recent global stressors have highlighted the importance of engaging psychological safety within corporate culture to elevate individuals, teams and organizational flow. But is there room for psychological safety across supply chains? 

Psychological Safety Differs from Safe Spaces  

The concept of safety beyond the physical realm was highlighted in the 1960s, when safe spaces in schools originated to support students who felt marginalized due to race or sex. These safe spaces grew in purpose and scope, becoming a platform for anyone expressing fear about their surroundings, specific situations, or used as expressions of political resistance and social repression. Safe spaces were deemed the solution to finding refuge from feelings of discomfort or the fear of them. 

Applying psychological safety within an organization encompasses emotional intelligence — but the inner workings are made of individual and group ideation, iteration and growth, which is often uncomfortable for workers.

A 2020 Forbes magazine article focused on psychological safety in the workplace and what determines successful implementation or failure. It noted that good leaders want to elevate their people by melding their differences, effectively pushing them beyond a comfort zone. However, when employees are asked to share their differences, truths and opinions, this creates vulnerability, which can be a risky endeavor.

What may be a comfortable risk to some may elicit unsafe feelings in others, an unintended yet unavoidable consequence. In response, employees may retreat from interpersonal growth and ebb into behaviors that minimize “unsafe” thoughts, reducing creativity and honesty. 

Conversely, companies that eschew conformity by allowing people to do and say anything without consideration of others generate less safety. A case in point: social media.

Growth Requires Self-Awareness  

“Psychological safety can impact corporations providing better ways to navigate through challenges,” said Michael Gillespie, founder and CEO of emotional intelligence (EQ) assessment company BlueEQ. During a recent webinar, he said that workplace psychological safety fosters employee retention, career growth and corporate brand strength. But it requires group trust.   

After working with 5,000 organizations and leaders from 125 countries, Gillespie found that when people get together, there are universal principles and concepts. The premise of BlueEQ’s core logic is that there is an obvious “cause and effect between emotional intelligence, psychological safety, and career and business impact,” he said. 

Companies are looking into the near future, knowing there are challenges to address, Gillespie said, including (1) inflation and economic uncertainty, (2) supply chain and data security, (3) sustainability pressures and (4) accelerated digital transformation. “Corporations are expecting their leaders, teams and individual contributors to do more with less. We have to take inventory of ourselves and become self-aware of how we’re showing up,” he said. Self-awareness, individually and across groups, creates a level of psychological safety, confidence and optimism accelerating career and corporate growth, he added. 

Establishing and Measuring Psychological Safety 

The tenets of psychological safety are categorized within four quadrants, each instrumental to driving organizational success: learner safety, collaborator safety, challenger safety and inclusion safety, Gillespie said. Psychological safety’s effectiveness is measured in metrics of engagement, culture, management and career(s), he said, but also “by comparing the different perceptions of a company’s psychological safety from individuals and teams.”  

According to Gillespie, the quadrants bring varied kinds of safety mechanisms to a company’s working environment: 

  • Learner safety — discovery, exploration and opportunity identification
  • Collaborator safety — encourages ongoing and open dialogue
  • Challenger safety — allows free expression of ideas, a “speak out” culture
  • Inclusion safety — feeling valued, individually and within teams; being part of the culture while showing up as one’s authentic self.

Equating these aspects of safety to company culture can be an initial assumption made by leaders and human resource managers, he said, but employee responsiveness and subsequent outcomes are better when psychological safety becomes a mindset.

A 2017 Gallup survey found that only 33 percent of U.S. employees are engaged at work, which is defined as “a state of mind that makes you feel more energetic, committed and absorbed by your work,” Gillespie said. Lack of worker engagement, he added, is an indirect outcome of low psychological safety, increasing employee turnover and reducing productivity.

“A place open to feedback and accountability, where it’s common practice to voice opinion, give and get respect — that’s psychological safety,” he said.

Gillespie cited another characteristic of importance — embracing failure. “When it isn’t safe to fail, people pull back on their efforts and develop a fear of failure,” he said. “Instead, innovate without judgment. Risk taking is learning, which is how we grow as people. Mistakes happen, disruptions happen. Companies thrive when course correction comes without punishment.” 

Safe Exploration Funnels Top-Down 

Change across an organization must be practiced from the top down, Gillespie said. “Leaders must engage psychological safety within their own lives by actively exercising soft skills: self-awareness, vulnerability, empathy and compassion.” Once championed, leaders can integrate these practices into their workplace teams, he stated, and establish a sense of caring.

Internal resiliency will be a byproduct of psychological safety, “strengthening individuals and groups to tackle crises by accepting and appreciating their differences,” he said. Through social recognition, everyone is noticed and valued, boosting productivity and relationships.

(Photo credit: Getty Images/Steven Puetzer)

About the Author

Melanie Stern

About the Author

Melanie Stern is Manager, Communications at Institute for Supply Management®.