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How Psychological Safety Can Transform Your Organization

Psychological safety helps team members speak up and avoid errors.

Key points

  • Psychological safety is when team members feel safe to take interpersonal risks.
  • Psychological safety results in fewer mistakes but more willingness to admit errors.
  • By asking questions and modeling, organizations can increase their psychological safety.

Think about an organization you belong to. Your office, your family, or some kind of club you’ve joined.

Now answer the following questions:

  1. Are you able to bring up problems and tough issues?
  2. Is it safe to take a risk?
  3. Are your unique skills and talents valued and utilized?

These questions come from Amy Edmondson’s groundbreaking work on psychological safety, and they should clue you in to whether or not people feel safe enough to take risks, offer criticism, and show up authentically and completely in your organization.

What’s Psychological Safety?

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During her doctoral program, Edmondson made a discovery during her research. Hospitals that had more psychological safety reported more errors but not because they made more errors. Instead, they felt safe enough to report errors. In groups with more psychological safety, mistakes were seen as part of the learning process. On the other hand, those hospitals with low psychological safety actually made more errors that just went unreported.

So what is psychological safety?

Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

Think back to those three questions from the beginning of this article. Are team members able to bring up problems and tough issues, take risks, and utilize their unique skills and talents? When all those things are happening, we’re dealing with an organization brimming with psychological safety.

Neither Mean Nor Nice

A famous example of low psychological safety is NASA during the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Some people knew about the faulty O-ring before it caused the shuttle to explode, but they either kept silent or were ignored.

This example gets to the heart of psychological safety. It’s obvious that when bosses react to feedback or mistakes with anger or frustration that less people will be inclined to raise red flags in the future. This ultimately hurts the organization as a whole.

But it also needs to be pointed out that psychological safety doesn’t thrive in environments where people are trying to be nice either. People have to be willing and able to rock the boat and speak up.

How Can Groups Boost Psychological Safety?

In her book, The Fearless Organization, Edmondson describes three ways to start fostering psychological safety.

1. Get Everyone on the Same Page

The first step is to emphasize how psychological safety enhances group performance. Remember back to the fact that it results in fewer mistakes and a better final product.

Give psychological safety some context. It’s not about being nice or always agreeing with each other. It’s about holding people accountable and helping each other perform optimally.

2. Ask Questions

Start letting people know that you’re walking the walk by asking lots of questions and listening to feedback. Ask them how they would do things better. Don’t pretend to have all the answers. Instead, create systems that invite and encourage everyone to start offering up their expertise.

I talk about this a lot in my own work in terms of shifting our focus from being in our heads to being genuinely curious and engaged with others.

3. Model and Reward

Now it’s time to demonstrate psychological safety to your teammates. Model the kind of psychological safety you want to see more of. Invite people to challenge your ideas and then reward them for doing so. Don’t react defensively. Instead, integrate their ideas in meaningful ways.

Fighting the Instinct to Remain Silent

Psychological safety doesn’t come naturally to groups. Edmondson describes how our preconceived ideas of organizational hierarchies tend to keep us silent even when the group would be better off hearing our ideas.

That’s why groups need to take steps to fight against this natural inclination toward silence. The ultimate goal is to encourage people to speak up about problems and tough issues and take risks at work. These goals have to be specifically stated, and then teammates have to see that they’re rewarded when they speak up, even when it’s in error.

It’s not an easy evolution, but it’s essential to shift toward psychological safety if we want group members to show up fully and bring their true selves to the team.


Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams Amy Edmondson. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.

Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. John Wiley & Sons.

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