Safety First: What On Earth is Pyschological Safety?

I’m not talking about hard hats or fire extinguishers. I’m referring to a phrase that keeps popping up — pyschological safety. Put simply, the belief you won’t get into trouble if you make a mistake. This sounds like the flip side of imposter syndrome, the in-built fear that you will be found out for not being good enough to do your job (and outed to the world).

A huge study by Google found that psychological safety was the key factor linking all high-performing teams, and is a fundamental foundation for successful cooperation, reported in Harvard Business Review. This feeling of safety allows people to try out new things and take risks at work. It enables humour to arise, lightening the atmosphere and allowing ideas to flow without the fear of them being shot down. And it encourages divergent thinking, which is essential to creativity and innovation.


It got me thinking about the places that I have worked, and whether I have felt secure in this way or not. One encounter immediately sprang to mind. Back in 2007 I embarked on a public sector graduate programme, working in housing and regeneration. I was returning from a meeting in Liverpool back to the office in Warrington with a senior colleague, in her car, having shadowed the meeting. If I remember correctly it was something to do with the docks in Liverpool and a multi-storey car park.


We were chatting about something and she referred to ‘hoardings.’ About two months into the job, I didn’t know that was the technical term for the fencing or boarding around a building site, so I asked her what that meant. She did not disguise her displeasure, and went on to advise me that “you will have to know terms like this or you will look like a complete idiot among the people we work with.” Ok, these were probably not the exact words, but pretty close. Way to encourage a newbie starting out! I was mortified. And, deep down, vowed not to expose myself in this way again.


This really was not helpful for my first job, as it made me very wary among certain senior people. As a result I spent a lot of time watching meetings and not saying anything much. Huge meetings, chaired by important men on six figure salaries, with speaking time proportionate to salary, and interjections of fairly stale white male banter. Maybe I’m being harsh, but this is my blog, so there. Not only did I miss out on opportunities to learn as a result of my silence, I think my organisation could have benefited from the odd insight from a young whipper snapper.

In the same organisation I came away with the belief (because several people had insinuated this) that the only way to get on in my career would be to become a chartered planner or surveyor, otherwise risk social death and professional ridicule. Or, at least, not do terribly well. Fortunately, I came to my senses and took voluntary redundancy from this role and spent a year doing a masters that helped me get my current job (at sustainability not for profit in London).


One of the revelations I had upon starting my new job was that sharing ideas was positively encouraged. In general, colleagues were polite and relatively humble, and trusted that I had what it took to do the job. They actively sought my opinion and checked how I was getting on. I once got the greatest compliment ever from a colleague who said that me using humour in projects made working together fun, and that it wasn’t a nice to have but an essential component in fostering creativity. I definitely crack fewer jokes when I’m working with a buttoned up corporate partner, let me tell you. It’s psychological safety that allows my sense of humour to be used to productive effect.


However, in group settings the most experienced / knowledgeable / confident voices tend to dominate. Those same people seize opportunities to do things like presentations and pitching, which can then compound less confident people’s feeling that perhaps they don’t have quite as much to offer.

This needs to be tackled head-on. Particularly when working in a global organisation. People from certain countries may allow others to speak first out of politeness, whereas others feel no such compunction. This is straying into introvert vs extrovert territory, but it relates to pyschological safety because I believe that it’s everyone’s responsibility in an organisation, (and particularly senior people’s) to ensure that others feel able to contribute without being ignored, spoken over, or criticised.


One area that I think needs more analysis from the likes of Harvard Business Review is how the feeling of safety plays out when you are in a marganlised group, say on the grounds of race, class, gender or disability. The charity sector is very white and middle class. One recent study found that in the UK’s 500 largest charities just 5.3% of people in senior leadership teams were from an ethnic minority background, and BAME women represent only 2.25% of leaders. The most ethnically diverse section of our team tends to be the finance team, as befits the stereotype. While the atmosphere may not be openly hostile towards people from different backgrounds, in homogenous workplaces subtle factors such as in-jokes, assumptions about people’s family circumstances, and a tacit shared understanding when recruiting of who would make a ‘good fit’ can easily make people who are different feel like outsiders.


Plenty has been written about the common experience of black women being interpreted as being bolshy or aggressive when simply expressing their opinions, overlooked for promotions and routinely ignored. These women do not benefit from psychological safety at work. This is an issue rooted in systemic racism and warrants a whole book that I am ill qualified to write. But I’ve noticed how analyses of workplace culture overlook issues of racism, sexism, and classism that are at play in many workplaces, often quite subtly. This needs to change.

Moving on. I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration for this post from an article I read today about confidence at work by Lauren Currie. In it are a number of ideas that I loved and am stealing here, in the interest of spreading them further.


The first, is that the leader or most senio people remain quiet in an ideas session until the end, the idea being that people will feel more able to share theirs without being swayed by the boss. The second is the technique of ‘participation priming’ — getting everyone to say something at the very start, so that everyone is warmed up and more likely to contribute later on. A great way to do this, and to increase empathy, is by introducing a ‘check-in’ at the start. E.g. one word summing up people’s mood coming into the meeting, or asking what people are bringing with them (figuratively speaking) into the meeting at that time.


Another idea I came across, and the last I’ll share here, is routinely sharing with colleagues what has not worked and what you have learned. It’s the antidote to ‘best practice’ and quite possibly richer in insight. One professor even published a CV of Failures of all the degree programmes and academic positions he had failed to secure, to dispel the myth that he breezes all the way to success. I’m all for podcasts and talks about failure, but one problem is that the people tend to be reflecting from a position of subsequent professional success. Let’s also remind people how we continue to be a bit shit in other areas of our lives!


Finally, I’m convinced that psychological safety is correlated with better mental health at work. Having a sense that your colleagues have got your back and that it’s ok, even necessary, to fail at times, comes as a huge relief if you have worked in cultures where that isn’t the case. That’s something I’m going to explore over the coming months at work–how psychological safety, individual confidence and mental health are interrelated, and how by strengthening one area, we can boost the others at the same time.


I’d love to know what psychological safety means to you, both your horror stories and fairy tales from the world of work…