There have been decades of research conducted to find ways to stimulate better performance from employees in the workplace. One concept that has been studied consistently is the idea of psychological safety. It’s believed the term was first introduced in 1954 by Carl Rogers, a clinical psychologist writing about creativity. This work was later collated by P.E. Vernon, where he wrote about the necessity to create conditions that make individuals feel as though they possess “unconditional worth” and an environment where there is no external evaluation. 

The current definition of psychological safety was coined in 1999 by Amy Edmondson and is defined as, “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

During her study in 1999, Edmundson recorded the number and rate of mistakes made by medical teams. In doing this, she found that the teams who made more mistakes had better performance scores, which was not the result she was expecting. After further digging, Edmondson found that the teams with more mistakes were actually reporting the mistakes while the other teams were hiding their mistakes. As a result, the teams with a culture in which they could openly admit to mistakes were the ones who ended up with better outcomes. There have been many studies since 1999 confirming this phenomenon. Some recent research includes a study from Yuanqin Ge in 2020 where he found that when employees felt there was a sense of psychological safety in their places of employment they could speak more openly and often, provide their opinions to help decision making in teams, and feel comfortable enough with their managers to share ideas. The underlying finding to many of these studies is the necessity of trust. Can your employees trust that there won’t be severe consequences for admitting mistakes? Can they openly ask questions without fear of ridicule or being looked down upon? Here are a few things to look for if you are wondering if your workplace is psychologically safe.

The Predictive Index lists 9 different signs or symptoms that may indicate low psychological safety in your organization:

  1. Your employees don’t ask questions during meetings.
  2. Your employees don’t feel as though they are able to admit to their mistakes, and occasionally blame these mistakes on others.
  3. Your team adamantly avoids difficult or controversial conversations.
  4. In meetings, leaders and executives seem to dominate discussions.
  5. There is little to no feedback given or requested by employees.
  6. Employees don’t go out of their way, and their job descriptions, to assist coworkers.
  7. Employees don’t ask coworkers for help when it’s necessary.
  8. There are few disagreements or differing opinions.
  9. Employees only know each other professionally, not personally.



If you’ve found, after reading that list, that some of these signs are prevalent in your place of work, it may be time for a change. But what can you do?  Timothy Clarke, a leader in the field of psychological safety, laid it out in four stages. He believes to have a truly psychologically safe environment, all of these types of safety need to be included and they are as follows: 

The Four Stages of Psychological Safety

  1. Inclusion Safety – Inclusion safety involves making sure your employers feel like they belong and are safe with the team. This includes making employees feel as though that can be their most authentic selves and will be accepted for that.
  2. Learner Safety – This stage includes making sure the workplace is an environment where questions are not frowned upon. Make the workplace a space where people feel they can ask questions to learn, give and receive feedback and even make small mistakes without fear of repercussions
  3. Contributor Safety – In this stage, employees should be able to feel as though they can share their ideas without the fear of being ridiculed or embarrassed. This stage can be the most difficult stage as bringing your own ideas in front of peers can be a very vulnerable position to be in. 
  4. Challenger Safety – In the final stage, employees should feel as though they can question or challenge coworkers’ (include authorities’) ideas and offer suggestions to plans or ways of working through a project.  

Now how do we apply this? Here are a few examples of ways to increase employees’ feelings of psychological safety.

Don’t Worry about Being the “Perfect” Team

Don’t put all the emphasis on being the “perfect” team where no mistakes are made and everything is always right. It’s understandable to strive for that as a leader, but it’s not exactly feasible. All of your employees are human and humans cannot be perfect all the time, as much as we may want to be. Studies show that a perfectionist boss has negative effects on motivation, effort, and willingness to work. Let go of your perfectionism a little and allow your employees to make mistakes and learn from them. Try to avoid anger in blaming the person and instead look for ways to rectify the situation. In doing so, you not only show your employees that you trust them enough to learn from this and not do it again but also show your team that coming to you with a mistake will not result in being berated by authority. 

Encourage All Voices

Try to create a space where everyone can say what they believe needs to be included in a discussion. Remind your team that their input is appreciated and cherished. Attempt to hear people out when they are sharing, instead of dismissing them with answers like “yes, but…” or “You don’t know enough context to understand this situation.” Instead, ask them questions and invite participation in a non threatening way such as “What point of view could we be missing?” and be willing to accept criticisms. It may help to even set up meetings with a portion for playing the devil’s advocate and addressing those concerns as a group. Making sure that your employees feel as though they are being heard can encourage them to continue speaking up and bringing unique ideas and solutions to the table. 

Focus on Building a Team Culture

Build a team where no one is afraid to ask each other for help. Make it the norm that coworkers encourage each other and have that begin with you. Try to schedule times for your team to spend time together and focus on feedback and appreciation. Make sure you let your team know you appreciate them and are supporting their development personally and professionally. Do this as well as events like happy hours or fun team building activities so your employees can let loose a little. You are with these people 35+ hours a week. Knowing more about them and feeling safe around them will make working with them more enjoyable and productive. 

Psychological safety is not a new concept nor will it become something of the past. It is an important staple of a happy and productive workplace. Applying some of these methods may help you and your workplace on the journey to becoming a high performing, psychologically safe environment. 

By Chloe Williams