Most startups and technology companies create a toxic culture — often without realizing it until it’s way too late. Employees are overworked, undervalued, and constantly feel like they have to prove themselves. This can lead to poor morale, high turnover rates, and a general feeling of unease among employees and it’s driving the Great Resignation across every type and size of organization right now.
Creating a psychologically safe workplace can help alleviate some of these issues. A psychologically safe environment is one where employees feel like they truly belong, feel comfortable expressing their ideas and concerns, feel like they are valued and supported, and feel safe enough to push back or suggest changes to the status quo.
Even though this is a critical building block of high-performing teams and the number one predictor of team performance, in my 23 years of coaching founders, executives and leaders, it has never come up naturally in a coaching session – because most leaders aren’t aware of it or actively avoid it. That’s why we teach this topic and require each participant to send a survey and measure their level of team psychological safety as the first assignment in The Leadership Accelerator.
What is Psychological Safety?
Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for taking risks or expressing ideas, even if those ideas are contrary to the majority or perceived as foolish. It is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.
Benefits of Psychological Safety
There are many benefits to creating a psychologically safe workplace, including:
1. Increased creativity and innovation: When employees feel like they can freely express their ideas, they are more likely to come up with new and innovative solutions.
2. Improved communication: In a psychologically safe environment, employees feel comfortable communicating with each other and with management. This can lead to better problem-solving and a more cohesive work environment.
3. Higher job satisfaction and retention: Employees who feel valued and supported are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs and less likely to leave the company.
4. Greater team productivity: A psychologically safe workplace can lead to increased team productivity as employees feel more comfortable working together and are more likely to cooperate with each other.
History of Psychological Safety
This term was first coined in 1999 by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who did groundbreaking work on team dynamics and learning. She found that the best teams are those where members feel safe to speak up and share their ideas, even if they are contrary to the majority or perceived as foolish.
Google expanded upon Edmondson’s research in 2014, finding that psychological safety was the number one predictor of team success. You can read Google’s findings here: https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/
Why Psychological Safety is Critical for Startups
Psychological safety is essential for innovation and creativity to thrive. It allows team members to take risks, experiment, and speak up without fear of retribution. This type of environment fosters learning and growth, as well as better decision-making.
When teams lack psychological safety, members are more likely to withhold their ideas and viewpoints out of fear of being ridiculed, ostracized, or punished. This can lead to groupthink, where the team fails to explore all potential solutions and make the best decision possible.
How to Create a Psychologically Safe Culture
Creating a psychologically safe environment requires effort from both leaders and team members — but it’s critical for founders and executives to commit to cultivate psychological safety so that managers and employees believe it is explicitly OK to learn, make mistakes, take risks and push back. Leaders need to set the tone by modeling desired behavior, encouraging open communication, and being receptive to feedback. Team members need to feel comfortable speaking up, offering new ideas, and disagreeing with the majority.
It’s important to note that psychological safety is not the same as agreement. In a psychologically safe environment, team members feel free to express their views without fear of retribution, even if those views differ from the majority or are unpopular. This type of environment leads to better decision-making and more innovative solutions.
There are many ways to create a psychologically safe workplace, but some of the most important include:
1. Encouraging open communication: Leaders should encourage team members to speak up, share their ideas, and express their concerns. This can be done through regular one-on-one meetings, team meetings, and directly soliciting feedback.
2. Modeling desired behavior: Leaders need to set the tone for the team by modeling the behavior they want to see. This includes being open to new ideas, encouraging debate, and valuing different perspectives.
3. Encouraging risk-taking: Leaders should encourage team members to take risks and experiment, even if it means making mistakes. This can be done by creating an environment where failure is seen as an opportunity — and an obligation — to learn and grow.
4. Being receptive to feedback: Leaders need to be open to feedback from team members and make changes based on that feedback. This shows that you value your team’s input and are willing to make changes to improve the team’s dynamics. If you won’t listen or change, that’s a sure sign that it’s not safe for your team to speak up.
The Four Stages of Psychological Safety
- Inclusion Safety: this means employees feel like they truly belong on your team, in your organization and they are valued for their humanity because you (and your co-workers) make a choice to include them, granting them inclusion safety.
- Learner Safety: this means employees feel it is safe to learn, take risks, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. In environments with low or no learner safety, leaders tend to push or force rather than teach, whether through “neglect, manipulation, or coercion, individuals become more defensive, less reflective and less able to self-diagnose, self-coach and self-correct.”
- Contributor Safety: leaders grant contributor safety when employees have the skills to do the job, which leads to greater respect and permission, based on the employee’s ability to create value.
- Challenger Safety: this means that employees feel safe enough to push back on their manager or even the CEO when they disagree or when they believe things can be improved or changed to benefit the organization. Innovation cannot happen without Challenger Safety, which means all four stages of psychological safety must be present.
Creating a psychologically safe workplace is essential for any team that wants to thrive but especially important for startups attempting to scale. A lack of psychological safety can dramatically slow progress and squelch the important conversations required to adapt, learn, grow, innovate and pivot. By encouraging open communication, modeling desired behavior, and being receptive to feedback, leaders can create an environment where team members feel safe to take risks, experiment, and speak up. This type of environment leads to better decision-making, more innovative solutions, and a more engaged workforce.