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“Low levels of psychological safety can create a culture of silence. They can also create a Cassandra culture – an environment in which speaking up is belittled and warnings go unheeded.”
Amy C Edmondson
Psychological safety is an inherent part of group membership. In a workplace context, this means being free of concerns for actions that result in negative consequences to your career or status[i]. That is, given the demands of innovation and continuous improvement that are a constant in today’s business environment, psychological safety allows business owners and employees to feel secure enough in their work duties to learn efficiently, contribute effectively and excel in their performance[ii].
Particularly considering risk-taking in the workplace, this differs from other areas of organizational study such as psychological empowerment, work engagement, ontological security, and trust. This is because psychological empowerment and work engagement refer to the specific jobs and tasks an individual undertakes, rather than the broader social and work environment they operate within[iii]. Ontological security deals with our internal balance, such as being secure in your own identity and holding a sense of interdependence within oneself[iv], which was later extended to include self-awareness and the belief that we hold the capability of answering fundamental existential questions[v] . The final area, that of trust, is internally focused, dealing with someone’s willingness to be vulnerable to others. In contrast, psychological safety is derived from how others will react to us, which is more related to the trust others will place in us[vi], rather than our trust in them.
In reality, we may consider psychological safety to be relevant to any business or organization. Even single-person businesses are members of a group – there will be supply chain participation for the manufacture of physical products, or external contractors / specialist obligations in the case of services. And every organization, whether commercial or non-profit, must exist for the benefit of someone else – known to the business as the customer or client.
But how does that play out under specific circumstances? Let’s examine this under two different contexts:
- Having a clear Purpose:
We know from research in areas such as Conversational Intelligence® (C-IQ), that trust allows us to access the highest levels of our abilities, our most “strategic and advanced thinking skills”[vii] . In particular, creativity seems positively influenced by psychological safety[viii] . For business owners or managers in organizations seeking improvement, whether to boost internal function or strengthen external position within their chosen industry, such improvements are likely to deliver financial and social benefits back to the business.
From the perspective of work design, a clear purpose may further allow for the business to more precisely define roles and strategy. Such role clarity may also help to reduce anxiety within the business, which, in turn, is believed to boost psychological safety[ix]. This also further enhances the ability of the business to design, implement and reap the rewards of future growth, as well as ‘steady the ship’ during the execution of that strategy (particularly while in in stormy waters).
Clarity of purpose also supports the development of routines which, in similar areas such as ontological security, are known to also assist an individual feel certain about what threats to confront or ignore[x] – thus potentially providing a further sense of safety for either the individual within the group, or the group itself.
- The Internal Business Environment
Beyond the benefits that clarity of purpose would appear to bring to the business, there are numerous other factors worthy of consideration that are believed to impact psychological safety within the business environment. Firstly, there are a number of elements that help create a sense of psychological safety[xi]:
- Leadership styles – the highest of which seems to be transformational leadership, but includes other styles such as ethical leadership and inclusive leadership;
- The way that the workplace is designed to function – particularly when staff are able to recognise their interdependence with each other; and
- The extent of support provided to staff by their organization and their peers – in which case, peer support is particularly valuable.
There are also a number of outcomes that appear to be a direct result of increasing psychological safety[xii]:
- Higher levels of engagement by employees in their duties;
- Superior task performance, particularly resilience to mistakes and increasing initiative;
- Greater satisfaction with work; and
- Stronger long-term commitment to the organization.
Clearly both of these areas represent a significant contribution to the internal working environment of business owners, managers and employees. It also suggests that any positive impact on the internal environment would also flow onto supply chain members and also customers / clients. In summary, this may result in a significant improvement to many aspects of the business context.
In summary, there are 4 main points to remember:
- Psychological Safety shares common traits with ontological security, trust, psychological empowerment and work engagement, and may provide positive effects through actions to reduce anxiety (such as routinisation and clarity);
- A clear purpose allows for the reduction of anxiety and uncertainty, which will boost performance (especially during the execution stage of any strategy);
- Beyond reduction of anxiety and ability to deal with unexpected challenges, there are countless other elements that provide psychological security (including leadership style, and boosting interdependence or peer support within the work environment); and
- Significant benefits that may be given to the business include (i) higher levels of employee engagement (ii) superior employee performance (iii) greater job satisfaction, and (iv) long-term commitment to the organization.
[i] Kahn, “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work”, 708.
[ii] Edmondson, “Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct”, 23-43.
[iii] Frazier, “Psychological Safety: A Meta‐Analytic Review and Extension”, 116.
[iv] Laing, The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness, 42.
[v] Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity : Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, 47.
[vi] Frazier, “Psychological Safety: A Meta‐Analytic Review and Extension”, 116.
[vii] Glaser, Conversational Intelligence How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results, 77.
[viii] Madjar, “Trust in Supervisors and Trust in Customers: Their Independent, Relative, and Joint Effects on Employee Performance and Creativity.”, 128-42.
[ix] Frazier, “Psychological Safety: A Meta‐Analytic Review and Extension”, 119.
[x] Mitzen, “Ontological Security in World Politics: State Identity and the Security Dilemma”, 345.
[xi] Frazier, “Psychological Safety: A Meta‐Analytic Review and Extension”, 140.
[xii] Ibid., 140-141.
Edmondson, Amy C., and Zhike Lei. “Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct.” 1, no. 1 (2014): 23-43.
Frazier, M. Lance, Stav Fainshmidt, Ryan L. Klinger, Amir Pezeshkan, and Veselina Vracheva. “Psychological Safety: A Meta‐Analytic Review and Extension.” Personnel Psychology 70, no. 1 (2017): 113-65.
Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self-Identity : Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Edited by body ProQuest issuing. 1st edition. ed.: Chicester : Polity Press, 1995.
Glaser, Judith E. Conversational Intelligence How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results. Edited by Inc Books24x. Brookline, MA : Bibliomotion, 2014.
Kahn, William A. “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work.” [In English]. Academy of Management Journal 33, no. 4 (Dec 1990 2014-05-25 1990): 692.
Laing, R. D. The Divided Self : An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1965.
Madjar, Nora, and Rowena Ortiz-Walters. “Trust in Supervisors and Trust in Customers: Their Independent, Relative, and Joint Effects on Employee Performance and Creativity.” Human Performance 22, no. 2 (2009): 128-42.
Mitzen, Jennifer. “Ontological Security in World Politics: State Identity and the Security Dilemma.” [In English]. European Journal of International Relations 12, no. 3 (Sep 2006 2019-04-10 2006): 341-70,459.