Have you ever worked on a team where you felt free to be yourself, speak your mind, and take risks? This dynamic is no accident. It’s the result of deliberate actions a leader takes to foster what’s known as “psychological safety.”
Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as a ”shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” In a study Edmonson published in 1999, she wrote that psychological safety “describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
I believe psychological safety goes hand-in-hand with another concept I’ve studied closely: the Asian concept of “face.” Face speaks to an individual’s sense of personal dignity. When you lose face, you feel a sense of shame and loss of dignity. When you save face, you recover that loss. When you honor face for someone, you build up that person’s dignity. You create a sense of psychological safety.
What happens when there is no psychological safety?
I work with an executive team that has worked together for a long time. They socialize with one another in ways typical of some people in Western culture drinking for an hour or two before sitting down for a meal, discussing sports or politics. These are the norms the team has created for itself.
When a new member who is from a different culture joined the team, she did not feel like she belonged. She does not drink alcohol or have the same cultural touch points to contribute or even understand those pre-dinner conversations. The team had good intentions, attempting to socialize with her in the ways they were used to, but she felt left out. She did not feel included or safe to be herself.
When we think about inclusion, we recognize the subtle, sometimes unintentional acts that make people feel excluded and uncomfortable. The long-term consequences of these acts can be serious.
A McKinsey study of 800 managers and employees across 17 industries found that 47 percent of people who felt they were treated poorly at work said they deliberately decreased their time spent there, while 38 percent said they intentionally decreased the quality of their work. In terms of long-term commitment to their jobs, the effect is also bleak: 78 percent reported declining commitment to the organization they work for.
What happens when we don’t feel safe?
When we feel psychologically unsafe, we react as if we are facing a physical threat we fight back, we run away, or we shut down and do nothing. Our amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotional response, memory, and decision-making, takes over and shuts down logical reasoning.
When we are in a state like this, we are not able to perform to our potential. In fact, research shows that even people who are naturally collaborative will not offer their ideas if they fear they will be rejected or punished. If taking a risk will cause us to lose face, we preserve our dignity instead. Losing face is simply too painful.
These emotions affect motivation and employees’ ability to do their job — and they affect retention. Studies have shown that among knowledge workers, the main reasons people leave jobs rarely have to do with compensation. Instead, the top reasons are lack of recognition, lack of involvement, and poor management.
How can we promote psychological safety?
In her research, Amy Edmondson notes that high-performing teams make more mistakes than their counterparts. But the number of mistakes isn’t key here. These teams didn’t actually make more mistakes — they admitted to making more mistakes. Because they were in environments that made it safe for them to do so, they felt free to make mistakes, admit to them, and learn from them. As leaders, treating failure as an acceptable outcome helps your teams to learn, innovate, and collaborate to develop better results.
On a psychologically safe team, people feel at ease being themselves. They complement one another. One person’s strength makes up for someone else’s weakness — and there’s no shame in acknowledging those weaknesses. There’s a culture of “we’re all in it together.”
The simple act of “honoring face” can help create this culture. It can lift people up, build confidence, and create psychological safety.
As a leader, there are many deliberate actions you can take to honor face. Simply listening, giving every individual’s voice equal time and weight, can set a strong foundation. Build trust and take time to express gratitude and appreciation, recognizing people for their contributions. And practice empathy. Put yourself in the place of others to understand their challenges.
When we feel safe, we take smart risks, find creative solutions, and feel empowered to take action. We focus on collective goals and problem prevention rather than on self-protection. As a leader, you have the tools to create teams like this. Be aware of your team’s psychological safety. Make conscious choices to help everyone feel included. And make sure you are actively doing all you can to honor face.