Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.Building a psychologically safe workplace: Amy Edmondson at TEDxHGSE – YouTube
And finally, if you go back to Abraham Maslow, he identified “belongingness needs,” stating that, “if both the physiological and the safety needs are fairly well gratified, then there will emerge the love and affection and belongingness needs.” Psychological safety is a postmaterialist need, but it is no less a human need than food or shelter. In fact, you could argue that psychological safety is simply the manifestation of the need for self-preservation in a social and emotional sense.The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety
- Psychological Safety and Neurodiversity
- Inclusion Safety
- Learner Safety
- Psychological Safety in Teams
- Psychological Safety and Ethics
- Psychological Safety and Human Scale
- Autistic People Have Significant Barriers to Accessing Safety
- Being Legible: Legibility as Social Status, Situational Privilege, and Belonging
Psychological Safety and Neurodiversity
Today we are at an early stage of educating organisations about the full potential of neurodiversity. What I notice is that psychological safety only tends to exist in small pockets within larger organisations, and that psychological safety is often compromised in scenarios that require collaboration across organisational silos.
The way I see it, autistic people have their place in the emerging world, and in many cases that place will not be in large government organisations or in corporations, but in non-hierarchical organisations and networks of mutual aid formed by autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people, which can offer a level of psychological safety that can’t otherwise be achieved within W.E.I.R.D. societies.The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations
In this context the NeurodiVenture model and regular Open Space workshops (Owen 2008) can create permanent as well as temporary neurodiversity friendly environments that act as training wheels, which allow neuronormative people to experience and appreciate direct forms of communication and greater levels of psychologically safety. A group context of neurodivergent people expands the allowable sphere of discourse and assists neuronormative people in relating to new possibilities that lie outside the Overton window of industrialised society.The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations
Neurodiversity friendly forms of collaboration hold the potential to transform pathologically competitive and toxic teams and cultures into highly collaborative teams and larger cultural units that work together more like an organism rather than like a group of fighters in an arena.
Society can learn from autistic culture. Autists are acutely aware that culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity.The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations
As the first stage of psychological safety, inclusion safety is, in its purest sense, nothing more than species-based acceptance (figure 5, previous page). If you have flesh and blood, we accept you. Profoundly simple in concept, devilishly difficult in practice, we learn it in kindergarten and unlearn it later.
Including another human being should be an act of prejudgment based on that person’s worth, not an act of judgment based on that person’s worthiness.
My point is that worth comes first, worthiness comes second. Inclusion safety is not about worthiness. It’s about treating people like people. It’s the act of extending fellowship, membership, association, and connection—agnostic of rank, status, gender, race, appearance, intelligence, education, beliefs, values, politics, habits, traditions, language, customs, history, or any other defining characteristic. Inclusion marks passage into civilization.
What should it take to qualify for inclusion safety? Two things: Be human and be harmless. If you meet both criteria, you qualify. If you meet only one, you don’t. The great African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass made the definitive statement about inclusion safety when he said, “I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity.” That statement can apply to any characteristic. When we extend inclusion safety to each other, we subordinate our differences to invoke a more important binding characteristic—our common humanity.The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety
In the second stage of psychological safety, we shift our focus from human status to human need—in this case the innate human need to learn and grow, to engage in all aspects of the learning process without fear of being rejected or neglected.
There are three patterns of fear-inducing emotional danger that remove learner safety and create a state of risk: (1) neglect, (2) manipulation, and (3) coercion.
In every learning context, consciously or not, we assess the level of interpersonal risk around us.
A hostile learning environment, whether at home, school, or work, is a place where fear elicits the self-censoring instinct and shuts down the learning process.
Learners rarely put forth the effort to learn unless learner safety is in place. It’s a “build it and they will come” principle. If you don’t build it, they may still come, but they won’t learn.The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety
Every child deserves an education that guarantees the safety to learn in the comfort of one’s own skin.
I centered my instruction on the lives, histories and identities of my students. And I did all of this because I wanted my students to know that everyone around them was supporting them to be their best self.
So while I could not control the instability of their homes, the uncertainty of their next meal, or the loud neighbors that kept them from sleep, I provided them with a loving classroom that made them feel proud of who they are, that made them know that they mattered.
There is a better way, one that doesn’t force kids of color into a double bind; a way for them to preserve their ties to their families, homes and communities; a way that teaches them to trust their instincts and to have faith in their own creative genius.Dena Simmons How students of color confront impostor syndrome – Ted Talk 2016 Ted com – YouTube
We need to remind ourselves that we don’t command learning, we invite it. The climate we create feeds the desire and motivation to learn. In an ideal setting, learner safety is a mutual giving and receiving of ideas, observations, questions, and discussion. If leaders are to meet learners where they are, you may need to back up and begin by supplying the inclusion safety that’s been absent. I have yet to see learner safety where inclusion safety is absent. One builds on the other.
Craig maintains that slow students are not less intelligent students. They simply assimilate at a slower pace, so his focus is on student effort rather than aptitude. That ability to resist making discriminating judgments of students’ abilities is a skill, but it’s also a moral capacity, and one that many teachers don’t have the discipline to develop.
“Retesting clearly works, so I give endless chances. If you’re willing to work, there’s always mercy. You can try again.”
— Craig B. Smith
Craig invites students to learn without adding fear to a subject that already creates its own. He recognizes that students who are emotionally distressed—anxious, angry, or depressed—are cognitively impaired and don’t learn well, so he fosters a challenging and yet nurturing climate of learner safety to dramatically reduce learning risk.
Performance terror. We’ve all known a classroom, meeting room or stage where we didn’t feel safe doing something we were quite capable of doing.
“As a college professor I encourage students to read their work aloud, but I never insist on it,” said Carey. “Sometimes those who are uncomfortable doing it will volunteer on their own because it’s their decision rather than mine.”
“I centered my instruction on the lives, histories and identities of my students. And I did all of this because I wanted my students to know that everyone around them was supporting them to be their best self,” said Simmons.
A supportive culture, sustained advisory relationships, and teaching strategies that create positive learning all promote psychological safety.
“Every child deserves an education that guarantees the safety to learn in the comfort of one’s own skin,” said Simmons.
If we want to create resilient, capable, problem-solving students, we need to allow them to make mistakes that encourage them to learn and grow. Students learn best when their affective filter is low. When mistake-making is perceived as bad, it is detrimental to learning.
The same holds for teachers.
We must allow teachers to model learning through trial and error.
When we create professional learning experiences that reward teacher risk-taking, we’re creating an environment of trust, which means encouraging teachers to continually re-new their practice through experimentation, failure and iteration.
Schools that fail have adults who talk relentlessly about how at risk their kids are. They have all the statistics at their fingertips. They focus on the perceived limitations… on vocabulary shortfalls, on lack of pre-school and parent involvement, on issues of attendance and language.
Schools that succeed have adults who talk about what their kids can do. They talk about the stories kids tell, the things kids make, the problems they solve, the way the collaborate, communicate, connect to the world. And when they’re really good you never hear the words “at risk,” or “title,” or “deficit,” when they plan.
A home of opportunity.
A school struggling with the ravages of American poverty has to first be a home — the kind of home the children may not have at home. A place that is relentlessly safe, that is both calming and exciting, that offers unconditional love, and that offers boundless opportunity.
That ‘home’ must be supportive and accepting, loving and encouraging, and it must provide the biggest possible window on to the world, on to the universe.
A home of opportunity.
What does opportunity look like? First, it looks like trust. It looks like freedom. And it looks like choice.
It looks like Universal Design for Learning, with kids learning to use the tools of a lifetime. It looks like a place where kids can hide when they need to and jump when they want to. It looks like a place where play is considered a high level learning path.
It looks like a place that respects kids’ needs and treats their lives as legitimately complex and difficult.
Psychological Safety in Teams
What happens when a team grants some respect or permission to its members, but not both—when the pattern of psychological safety moves out of the bowling lane, so to speak, into the gutter on one side or the other?
When a team offers a measure of respect, but very little permission, it falls into the gutter of paternalism.
On the other hand, what happens when a team grants a measure of permission to contribute, but little respect? In this case, the team falls into the gutter of exploitation—a condition in which the leader attempts to extract value while not valuing those who create the value.The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety
The single best predictor of a company’s culture score is whether employees feel respected at work. Respect is not only the most important factor, it stands head and shoulders above other cultural elements in terms of its importance. Respect is nearly 18 times as important as the typical feature in our model in predicting a company’s overall culture rating, and almost twice as important as the second most predictive factor.
But this innate talent and intense training would be less effective were it not for what the European industry calls “just culture,” May says. That’s an ethos which dictates the way mistakes are reported in the profession, and what the consequences are for human error. The system, which is similarly practiced in US air traffic control but doesn’t go by the same name, involves responding to errors with training and support, not punishment or job loss. More than a buzzword, just culture involves a literal contract that codifies the ways that employees will be made to feel psychologically safe at work, and it’s signed by management and the controller’s trade unions.Air Canada near-miss: Air traffic controllers make split-second decisions in a culture of “psychological safety” — Quartz
As Amy Edmondson, a Harvard University professor of management who coined the term “psychological safety,” found in her research, “It turns out that no one wakes up in the morning and jumps out of bed because they can’t wait to get to work today to look ignorant, intrusive, incompetent or negative.” So we protect ourselves by not asking questions, and by not admitting to slip-ups. Employees spend a lot time and energy on “impression management” within the workplace.
Now companies like Google are studying ways to create psychological safety within teams, to free up resources wasted on self-protection and allow people to collaborate with ease and think creatively. In aviation, psychological safety became important for a less abstract reason: the literal safety of employees and customers.Air Canada near-miss: Air traffic controllers make split-second decisions in a culture of “psychological safety” — Quartz
In Silicon Valley, software engineers are encouraged to work together, in part because studies show that groups tend to innovate faster, see mistakes more quickly and find better solutions to problems. Studies also show that people working in teams tend to achieve better results and report higher job satisfaction. In a 2015 study, executives said that profitability increases when workers are persuaded to collaborate more. Within companies and conglomerates, as well as in government agencies and schools, teams are now the fundamental unit of organization. If a company wants to outstrip its competitors, it needs to influence not only how people work but also how they work together.
Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’
Google, in other words, in its race to build the perfect team, has perhaps unintentionally demonstrated the usefulness of imperfection and done what Silicon Valley does best: figure out how to create psychological safety faster, better and in more productive ways.
‘Don’t underestimate the power of giving people a common platform and operating language.’
That’s encouraging news for those of us who don’t get to perform with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley.
There’s a term for this: psychological safety. The researcher Amy Edmondson demonstrated that teams can appear to be strong on the surface: people like and respect each other, and they get along well. Despite that, they may have an environment where everyone sits silently while the boss talks at them, or where people feel ashamed to be vulnerable and open up about their fears. They might all love hanging out together after work, but nobody can bring themselves to tell someone when they’ve got toilet paper stuck to their shoes. If we want a climate where people can accomplish groundbreaking things, we need to know our voice will be heard and where we’re not afraid to take risks.
The best jazz bands, like the best Google teams, provide the space to take risks. We already know jazz artists have hyperaware senses and can pick up on nonverbal clues. But everyone also gets a voice. In jazz, it’s assumed that unexpected contributions can come from anyone. Getting a “voice” also means every band member takes a turn soloing. Each player spends time as both leader and follower. Miles was always attune to the contributions of everyone. If he realized someone hadn’t had a solo in a while, he’d lean over to them and whisper in his gravelly voice that they should take the lead.
Followership in jazz is worthy of the highest respect—it’s known as comping. Comping is listening and responding without overshadowing. Followership needs to be active, not passive. It’s not about sitting back and letting someone else do all the work. You take an indispensable role in giving space, riffing, experimenting, and supporting. And yet leading and talking are more valued than following and listening in our work culture.
Julia and her Google colleagues found Edmondson’s papers as they were researching norms. The idea of psychological safety, they felt, captured everything their data indicated was important to Google’s teams. The norms that Google’s surveys said were most effective— allowing others to fail without repercussions, respecting divergent opinions, feeling free to question others’ choices but also trusting that people aren’t trying to undermine you— were all aspects of feeling psychologically safe at work. “It was clear to us that this idea of psychological safety was pointing to which norms were most important,” said Julia. “But it wasn’t clear how to teach those inside Google. People here are really busy. We needed clear guidelines for creating psychological safety without losing the capacity for dissent and debate that’s critical to how Google functions.” In other words, how do you convince people to feel safe while also encouraging them to be willing to disagree?
“For a long time, that was the million-dollar question,” Edmondson told me. “We knew it was important for teammates to be open with each other. We knew it was important for people to feel like they can speak up if something’s wrong. But those are also the behaviors that can set people at odds. We didn’t know why some groups could clash and still have psychological safety while others would hit a period of conflict and everything would fall apart.”Duhigg, Charles (2016-03-08). Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business (Kindle Locations 793-808). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
When I worked for Google as a Site Reliability Engineer, I was lucky enough to travel around the world with a group called “Team Development.” Our mission was to design and deliver teambuilding courses to teams who wanted to work better together. Our work was based on research later published as Project Aristotle. It found that the primary indicator of a successful team wasn’t tenure, seniority, or salary levels but psychological safety.
Think of a team you work with closely. How strongly do you agree with these five statements?
1. If I take a chance and screw up, it will be held against me.
2. Our team has a strong sense of culture that can be hard for new people to join.
3. My team is slow to offer help to people who are struggling.
4. Using my unique skills and talents comes second to the objectives of the team.
5. It’s uncomfortable to have open, honest conversations about our team’s sensitive issues.
Teams that score high on questions like these can be deemed to be “unsafe.” Unsafe to innovate, unsafe to resolve conflict, unsafe to admit they need help. Unsafe teams can deliver for short periods of time, provided they can focus on goals and ignore interpersonal problems. Eventually, unsafe teams will underperform or shatter because they resist change.
“Comedy writers carry a lot of anger,” said Schiller. “We were vicious to each other. If you thought something was funny and no one else did, it could be brutal.”
So why, given all the tensions and infighting, did the Saturday Night Live creators become such an effective, productive team? The answer isn’t that they spent so much time together, or that the show’s norms put the needs of the group above individual egos.
Rather, the SNL team clicked because, surprisingly, they all felt safe enough around one another to keep pitching new jokes and ideas. The writers and actors worked amid norms that made everyone feel like they could take risks and be honest with one another, even as they were shooting down ideas, undermining one another, and competing for airtime.
“You know that saying, ‘There’s no I in TEAM’?” Michaels told me. “My goal was the opposite of that. All I wanted were a bunch of I’s. I wanted everyone to hear each other, but no one to disappear into the group.”
That’s how psychological safety emerged.
After looking at over a hundred groups for more than a year, Julia and the Project Aristotle team concluded it was something unexpected (group norms) were the key to better teams.
In particular, one factor stood out more than others: creating “psychologically safe environments.” Teams that encourage safe discussions and different viewpoints succeed more.
On the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, what researchers referred to as ”equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment.
First explored by pioneering organizational scholars in the 1960s, psychological safety research languished for years but experienced renewed interest starting in the 1990s and continuing to the present. We propose that psychological safety has become a theoretically and practically significant phenomenon in recent years in part because of the enhanced importance of learning and innovation in today’s organizations. Psychological safety is fundamentally about reducing interpersonal risk, which necessarily accompanies uncertainty and change (Schein & Bennis 1965). Reflecting this premise, a rapidly growing body of conceptual and empirical research has focused on understanding the nature of psychological safety, identifying factors that contribute to this interpersonal construct, and examining its implications for employees, teams, and organizations. The aim of this article is first to review this literature and then to outline the implications of the findings, including controversies and unanswered questions, as well as directions for future research.
In an influential paper, William Kahn (1990) rejuvenated research on psychological safety with thoughtful qualitative studies of summer camp counselors and members of an architecture firm that showed how psychological safety enables personal engagement at work. He proposed that psychological safety affects individuals’ willingness to “employ or express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances,” rather than disengage or “withdraw and defend their personal selves” (p. 694). Further, Kahn argued that people are more likely to believe they will be given the benefit of the doubt—a defining characteristic of psychological safety—when relationships within a given group are characterized by trust and respect. Using descriptive statistics from summer camp counselors and members of an architecture firm, he also showed a quantitative relationship between personal engagement and psychological safety in both contexts.
A useful way to think about teams with the right mix of skills and personalities is to consider the two roles every person plays in a working group: a functional role, based on their formal position and technical skill, and a psychological role, based on the kind of person they are. Too often, organizations focus merely on the functional role and hope that good team performance somehow follows. This is why even the most expensive professional sports teams often fail to perform according to the individual talents of each player: There is no psychological synergy. A more effective approach (like the mission to Mars example) focuses as much on people’s personalities as on their skills.
In our own work we found that psychological team roles are largely a product of people’s personalities. For example, consider team members who are:
- Results-oriented. Team members who naturally organize work and take charge tend to be socially self-confident, competitive, and energetic.
- Relationship-focused. Team members who naturally focus on relationships, are attuned to others’ feelings, and are good at building cohesion tend to be warm, diplomatic, and approachable.
- Process and rule followers. Team members who pay attention to details, processes, and rules tend to be reliable, organized, and conscientious.
- Innovative and disruptive thinkers. Team members who naturally focus on innovation, anticipate problems, and recognize when the team needs to change tend to be imaginative, curious, and open to new experiences.
- Pragmatic. Team members who are practical, hard-headed challengers of ideas and theories tend to be prudent, emotionally stable, and level-headed.
Observing the balance of roles in a team offers an extraordinary insight into its dynamics.
Thus, evaluating the whole person can offer pivotal insights into how people are likely to work together, and can help flag areas of conflict and affinity. Anything of value happens as the result of team effort, where people set aside their selfish interests to achieve something collectively that they could not achieve by themselves. The most successful teams get this mix of personalities right.
Psychological Safety and Ethics
Thankfully, there are a number of things organizations can do to make it more likely that people will speak up when they observe unethical behaviors. Our research discovered that psychological safety in this context is essential.
Psychological Safety and Human Scale
The NeurodiVenture operating model not only raises neurodiversity as a top level concern for good company, but by imposing a hard limit on group size, it also ensures that every member of the team has spare cognitive capacity for building and maintaining trusted relationships with the outside world. It is a good idea for every member to maintain some of their 50 general friend relationships with people in other companies.
The limits of human scale, the capacity for cultural evolution, and the resultant cultural diversity are best appreciated as the most valuable and unique species level survival advantage of humans over all other primate species. Human societies that operate at human scales are highly resilient and adaptive.The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations
Autistic People Have Significant Barriers to Accessing Safety
Hyper-plasticity predisposes us to have strong associative reactions to trauma. Our threat-response learning system is turned to high alert. The flip side of this hyper-plasticity is that we also adapt quickly to environments that are truly safe for our nervous system.
The stereotypes of meltdowns and self-harm in autism come from the fact that we frequently have stress responses to things that others do not perceive as distressing. Because our unique safety needs are not widely understood, growing up with extensive trauma has become our default.Discovering a Trauma-Informed Positive Autistic Identity | by Trauma Geek | Medium
Autistic people are psychological safety barometers. We need environments safe for our nervous system.
Being Legible: Legibility as Social Status, Situational Privilege, and Belonging
Being legible requires other people to have the ability to make sense of me. That means I am a thing that exists but that is also supposed to exist, in a given space or conversation or exchange.Why I Hate* California – essaying
Tressie McMillan Cottom is a fount of new ways to think. As neurominorities, we are thirsty for legibility. With legibility comes belonging.
The privilege of being oneself is a gift many take for granted, but for the autistic person, being allowed to be oneself is the greatest and rarest gift of all.Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Children: For parents of the newly diagnosed