A woman comforts her colleague in the workplace

The Importance of Psychological Safety in the Workplace

I wasn’t familiar with the term psychological safety before reading this article. But I recognized the concept immediately. Here’s Laura Delizonna in Harvard Business Review:

“There’s no team without trust,” says Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google. He knows the results of the tech giant’s massive two-year study on team performance, which revealed that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety, the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake (emphasis added). Studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind, creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — just the types of behavior that lead to market breakthroughs.

Psychological safety is really important if you want a high-functioning team. And too many of the employees we talk to report it missing. Delizonna goes on:

Ancient evolutionary adaptations explain why psychological safety is both fragile and vital to success in uncertain, interdependent environments. The brain processes a provocation by a boss, competitive coworker, or dismissive subordinate as a life-or-death threat. The amygdala, the alarm bell in the brain, ignites the fight-or-flight response, hijacking higher brain centers. This “act first, think later” brain structure shuts down perspective and analytical reasoning (emphasis added). Quite literally, just when we need it most, we lose our minds.

The article is mostly dedicated to negative feedback and delivering it effectively. Santagata, the Google executive, shares some good lessons. Effective negative feedback is vital for psychological safety, and it’s a big part of what Feelings at Work is helping with.

My favorite part of the article, though, is about positive emotions:

Twenty-first-century success depends on another system — the broaden-and-build mode of positive emotion, which allows us to solve complex problems and foster cooperative relationships. Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina has found that positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration broaden the mind and help us build psychological, social, and physical resources. We become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent when we feel safe. Humor increases, as does solution-finding and divergent thinking — the cognitive process underlying creativity.

It may be clear, but I would just add that negative feedback by itself — even if delivered by the most enlightened person — isn’t enough for instilling positive emotions in the workplace. There should be more positive feedback than negative, and to achieve that companies need to help managers and employees learn to look for it and deliver it.

Go read the full article.