Every day, occupational safety professionals deal with the perception of risk – or lack thereof – and its consequences for human behavior and safety outcomes. But they might not consider some of the risks workers fear most: humiliation, loss of status and rejection.
Organizational researchers have found that such anxieties keep people from reaching their full potential as contributing members of a team – and what calms these fears is a sense of psychological safety.
Psychological safety isn’t a new idea; it has circulated in organizational psychology since the 1960s. The concept gained new prominence in 2016, when The New York Times reported that Google’s ambitious team efficacy study, Project Aristotle, had identified psychological safety as the single most important determinant of team success. It has since been widely hailed in management circles as key to employee engagement and group productivity, and it’s now a hot topic in the occupational safety and health community.
Amy Edmondson is the Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School; author of the book “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth”; and a prominent researcher on the topic. Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a belief that the environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking – like speaking up with a question, a concern, an idea or even a mistake.”
In a study published in 1999, she describes psychological safety in organizational settings as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up” and “a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
Edmondson and others contend that this sense of security allows team members to freely communicate, brainstorm, report errors and innovate. But even with “safety” baked right into the name, psychological safety seems more like a team-building concept than a workplace safety issue.
So, why should safety pros care about psychological safety, and what are the implications of this idea for workplace safety culture?