Q: How does psychological safety deliver business results in organizations?
A: Harvard researcher Amy Edmondson raised the profile of the concept of psychological safety through her 2018 book, "The Fearless Organization." Businesses that care about innovation, employee engagement, outpacing competition, diversity, equity and inclusion need to care about psychological safety.
Edmondson defines psychological safety as "the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes." It is a shared sense of trust and support for appropriate risk-taking and vulnerability within group relationships.
When teams, groups and organizations have a high level of psychological safety, they pursue innovative ideas, raise concerns early, are highly engaged and have open and honest conversations about their work and challenges. Then, workplace relationships can move from transactional to invested, which is important for organizations that are doing meaningful work related to diversity, equity and inclusion.
Asking questions, sharing information and trying new things also happen more consistently in environments where people feel psychologically safe. Research from Google's Project Aristotle found that psychological safety was the most important differentiator in high-performing teams.
Groups that have lower levels of psychological safety tend to be more dysfunctional. Interpersonal dynamics are challenging. Trust levels are low. There is a fear of reprisal and retribution. New product and business ideas stall because the personal consequences of getting it wrong are too high.
Understanding the level of psychological safety in an organization can start with a short survey. The questionnaire included in "The Fearless Organization" assesses teams on four key elements. Results from the survey can then be used to facilitate a team discussion. Similar to how many organizations manage their employee-engagement survey results, a team can create an action plan to strengthen team dynamics. Follow-up surveys and monitoring are key to progress.
Organizational culture is at the center of many workplace conversations about remote, hybrid and in-office work; recruiting and retention; and the role of work in people's lives. An organization that can demonstrate high levels of psychological safety will attract and keep top talent and deliver strong business results.
Jill Hauwiller is on faculty at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.