Psychological Safety or the competitive advantage in businesses today

    Paula Lazo Rivera

    Recently, I had the privilege of working with a bright group of executives from a global tech company.

    Their company’s culture (or simply put “the way things are done around here”) stems from six pillars among which is Psychological Safety, a huge concept and one I was not fully familiar with.

    I became fascinated by the work of Amy Edmonson, an American scholar who is currently the Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School. Edmonson is also the author of “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth” (Wiley, 2018). She has been recognized by the biannual Thinkers50 global ranking of management thinkers in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017 and was honoured with its Talent Award in 2017 (from Wikipedia).

    This global tech company has embraced the concept (or rather the mindset) of Psychological Safety as part of their company culture pillars, recognising that for a tech company which operates in the ever-changing market of technology (and in a VUCA environment as any other multinational in the world), the only way to stay in business and continue growing is to create and sustain a work environment where people strive. And by doing so, most significantly, recognise that their most important asset are their people and the wellbeing of their minds, bodies and emotions.

    What is a work environment where people strive?

    According to professor Edmonson’s work, people strive in an environment where they feel they can speak up.

    In other words an environment where people feel safe to be vulnerable, open up and share opinions and ideas, ask questions, give and get feedback, admit mistakes and ask for help without fear of being put down, undermined, criticized and having repercussions.

    In 2012, the internet giant, Google, embarked on a quest called Project Aristotle, to decode the recipe for high performing teams. After studying 180 teams, going through data like team composition, trying to find patterns, they could not find any, any other than habits and norms that played out differently depending on the different teams. At the end it all boiled down to people feeling safe, emotionally and psychologically safe.

    If Google, one of the biggest corporations of the modern world, says it, it gets attention, other companies get curious and some start to adopt these views and practices.

    Companies strive for sustainability, many want to do it not only to prevent compromising the wellbeing of their employees but as a mean to nourish and invest in it.

    Professor Edmonson says “A culture of psychological safety is going to be increasingly important in the future of work, in fact it will be a competitive advantage” and some companies, like the client I worked with are serious about it.

    How do you create a psychological safe environment?

    By cultivating behaviours that promote psychological safety:

    Engaging: this means being fully present in interactions with other people, physically, mentally and emotionally. Listening actively – not waiting for the other person to shut up so you can speak – keeping eye contact, an open and receiving body posture, quieting your inner talk, suspending judgement and listening at all levels: facts, feelings, values.

    Yes, and-ing: keeping an open mind and building on others’ ideas; cultivating a mindset of “both/and” (rather than either/or). A simple way to practice this behavior is to build on other people’s ideas by using “and” (as a connector of ideas) rather than a “but” (a separator of ideas).

    Exploring: a mindset of viewing mistakes and failures as learning opportunities; looking at failures with different lenses, analyzing them and treating them differently. Not all failures are created equal and psychological safe environment need to promote “intelligent failures” (huge concept and work started by Duke Professor of Business Administration, Sim Sitkin), failures that allow us to experiment and explore.

    Including: building and cultivating an inclusive attitude toward everyone; expressing curiosity and interest about who each person is and can contribute with; considering that every person brings value. In other words cultivating an attitude of appreciation and humility toward others.

    Empathizing: viewing the world from other standpoints; acknowledging yours and others inner experiences. As Houston University Professor, Dr. Brené Brown says “empathy fuels connection” and you show empathy when you take the other person’s perspective, you stay out of judgement and listen, you recognize emotions in another person that you may have felt before (and if you haven’t you stay open and curious), you communicate that you recognize that emotion – and if you don’t you consider what it might feel like and or remain curious and open and say: “I may not know this emotion but I wonder what it might feel like”.

    Inquiring: asking open ended questions from a true place of curiosity and exploration especially in situations of conflict so to understand the other person’s perspective – and eventually challenging your own one.


    Practicing all these behaviours might really challenge you out of your comfort zone.

    What if you would try one or two and see what happens?

    Building and sustaining a psychological safe environment is an ongoing endeavor. The volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of the world around us will challenge and tempt us into taking “shortcuts” and “detours” that will offer all the “right reasons” for not cultivating these behaviours: we’re too busy, we need to meet deadlines, no one understands my challenges….

    The truth is that this is hard work.

    Keeping work environments psychologically safe, where everyone of us can speak up without fear of being judged and criticized, where we can feel safe to be vulnerable and make mistakes and put aside our defense systems, is a commitment worth making.

    A psychological safe environment is a fertile soil where people can access their most creative selves in support of self, team and organizational growth and development.

    If you would like to learn more about psychological safety, here’s more:

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