The Management Value of "Psychological Safety"

Anxiety breeds self-preservation, not innovation.

Posted Dec 07, 2020

One of the less tangible but more important things you do as a manager is establish the character of your employees' everyday work environment.

 Amina Filkins / Pexels
Feeling comfortable at work makes all the difference in one's day-to-day experience of it.
Source: Amina Filkins / Pexels

I was reminded of this recently when I happened across a 2015 study from Google in which they identified the five "keys to a successful Google team." Four of the attributes were pretty standard management fare; they involved dependability, clarity, meaning and impact. But the real key, Google concluded, the unexpected single most important variable, was what they called "psychological safety." 

By this they meant the development of an atmosphere in which team members felt comfortable taking risks. "Psychological safety was far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found," Google wrote, "it’s the underpinning of the other four. How could that be? Taking a risk around your team members seems simple. But remember the last time you were working on a project. Did you feel like you could ask what the goal was without the risk of sounding like you’re the only one out of the loop? Or did you opt for continuing without clarifying anything, in order to avoid being perceived as someone who is unaware?"

Fostering a climate

The concept of "psychological safety" immediately resonated with me because I had over the course of a long career intuitively felt this without being able to articulate it so nicely and concisely.

In fact, I'd say the concept has strong applicability not just to team performance, but to everyday individual management. Whether in-person or remote, what kind of climate does a manager -- at any level, from the C-suite to the shop floor -- foster for his or her direct reports? My own perspective: It involves more than just the ability to take risks. It's about creating an atmosphere where employees (and contractors) are comfortable speaking their minds, where they feel free to give candid opinions, and can go about their general working lives in a normal, natural way with confidence and without fear of reprisal. 

While something as amorphous as "atmosphere" is subtle and hard to quantify, it can be a difference maker for employees in their daily experience. I know when I was in the corporate world it made a great deal of difference to me and to many colleagues.

Innovation, not anxiety

The notion of psychological safety is by no means unique to large corporations. Good teachers are taught to create risk-free classrooms. Good ad agency creative directors encourage teams and individuals to explore all kinds of outlandish ideas in hopes of finding unique ways to break through market clutter. In any workplace, feeling secure makes it easier to take risks; anxiety breeds self-preservation, not innovation.

From a management perspective, all of this is easier said than done, of course,  There are always those nettlesome realities of working in a highly authoritative culture, or having to deliver those darn positive results. Just as in any relationship, honest dealings with employees require confidence and the willingness to hear something you might not want to. 

But I firmly believe Google with its effective-team study provided a very solid insight. We do our best work when calm, not anxious. The more a manager can provide psychological safety, the more likely he or she is to be rewarded with employee energy, engagement, and ultimately strong performance. Which at the end of the day is what successful management wants.