Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Creating an Environment Where People and Teams Thrive


5 minute read


Have you ever had to work with someone who was a complete jerk? I have. I was a new manager. He was a director who partnered with my team regularly. He was good at his job in the sense that he had smart ideas and could close a deal, but his reputation as an arrogant bully was well earned. As my responsibilities increased, I had to interact with him more and more. For a while, I felt like we’d establish some level of rapport. Then one day I popped into his office for a quick conversation. During our discussion, I said something he took issue with. I don’t even remember what it was—it was that insignificant. But his response was something like: “Well, [bleepity bleepin’ bleepy bleep] you.” Then he laughed—not with me, but at me.
I was stunned and embarrassed. I felt my face flush. I stammered something unintelligible, and I walked out.

Did I confront him later? Nope. Did I tell my boss? Nope, because they were friends. But I did warn my team. Did we have to keep working with him? Yep. Did we all measure every word before we spoke in his presence? You bet we did.

Now, before you say, “Suck it up, buttercup!,” know this: In 2015, Google released the results of a two-year internal study to identify the attributes that make their teams effective. At the top of its findings list is psychological safety. Google’s study made it clear that creating psychological safety in the workplace is a real difference maker in team performance.

What is psychological safety? It’s the feeling that you can be open and vulnerable with your peers and leaders without fear of embarrassment or retaliation.

Google discovered that when psychological safety is part of a team’s dynamic and team members are comfortable sharing ideas, taking risks, and making mistakes, the team realizes a host of benefits: better communication, more innovation, stronger collaboration, higher productivity, improved engagement, and increased retention.

What organization isn’t striving for that kind of team dynamic?

In fact, in the wake of the Great Resignation and recent media focus on the “quiet quitting” phenomenon, the concept of psychological safety at work is trending. Mental health experts cite a lack of psychological safety as a contributing factor in both of these workplace trends. Fewer workers are willing to tolerate a toxic workplace that makes them feel inadequate, unappreciated, stressed out, or abused.

Leaders who dismiss the importance of creating psychological safety in the workplace are going to find it increasingly difficult to attract and retain top talent.

Indeed, one recent study of 36,000 employees found a correlation between psychological safety and managerial effectiveness: employees who rated their manager’s skills highly reported increased levels of psychological safety on their teams compared to employees who rated their manager’s skills as low.

As a leader, how do you establish psychological safety in the workplace? Not swearing at or laughing at your colleagues is a start, of course. Psychological safety is an outcome. It’s an outcome produced by the actions and behaviors of individuals, the operational workings of teams, and organizational culture created over time. However, one of the most important and influential factors is the actions of leaders. The correlation between managerial skills and the level of psychological safety employees report suggests leaders are wise to build self-awareness and competence in several standard areas of leadership. In our Dion Leadership curriculum, psychological safety is a component of:

  • Emotional Intelligence, which focuses on the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and recognize and adapt to the emotions of others
  • Trust-Based Leadership, which emphasizes the specific behaviors that foster trust on a team, including credibility, reliability, and intimacy
  • Conflict Management, which presents a healthy, productive approach to addressing differences of opinion or approach
  • Communicating with Impact, which covers active listening, powerful questioning, and empathy
  • Effective Feedback, which explores why feedback conversations can be difficult and offers proven models for structuring a productive dialogue and making feedback an integral part of a team’s culture
  • Inclusion in the Workplace, which examines the impact of unconscious bias and emphasizes best practices to ensure all perspectives are appreciated and valued

Each of these topics is paramount to a leader’s success at any level, and all of them touch on a leader’s ability to create an environment where colleagues feel safe to debate, innovate, contribute, and be themselves. When employees see their leaders modeling the self-awareness, openness, and vulnerability that underpins psychological safety, they are free to practice it themselves.

Terri Schell-Practice Leader, Learning & Development -Dion Leadership_

Terri Schell

Practice Leader, Learning & Development

Terri is passionate about leading a team that develops new, engaging learning content. She works with clients to develop large-scale group development programs that combine multi-modality learning. She supports our facilitators and clients as they prepare for and deliver high quality learning events. Terri recently led the development team for a new e-learning course that supports work-life alignment.

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