Psychological safety in the workplace

March 11, 2020

What is psychological safety

Helping leaders build psychological safety in their teams should be an integral part of any leadership development program. Although several definitions of psychological safety have been proposed, the majority of studies have followed Amy Edmondson’s description. She defines team psychological safety as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It models the effects of team psychological safety and team efficacy together on learning and performance in organizational work teams (Edmondson, 1999).

Team psychological safety is not the same as group cohesiveness, as research has shown that cohesiveness can reduce willingness to disagree and challenge others’ views, such as in the phenomenon of groupthink, implying a lack of inter-personal risk taking. It is rather, a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. This confidence stems from mutual respect and trust among team members. Edmondson (1999) adds, team psychological safety involves but goes beyond interpersonal trust; it describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves. But building trust may be an important ingredient in creating a climate of psychological safety.

People tend to act in ways that inhibit learning when they face the potential for threat or embarrassment. Nonetheless, in some environments, people perceive the career and interpersonal threat as sufficiently low that they do ask for help, admit errors, and discuss problems – that is the idea behind team psychological safety (Edmondson, 1999).

Converging opinion of various authors on the subject of psychological safety, Newman, Donohue & Eva (2017) say, in a psychologically safe work environment, employees feel that their colleagues will not reject people for being themselves or saying what they think, respect each other’s competence, are interested in each other as people, have positive intentions to one another, are able engage in constructive conflict or confrontation, and feel that it is safe to experiment and take risks. Behaviorally, psychological safety leads employees to engage in open communication, voice their concerns, and seek greater feedback; all of which are interpersonally risky behaviors. People are more likely to feel psychologically safe when they have trusting and supportive interpersonal relationships with work colleagues (Newman, Donohue & Eva, 2017).

The authors add, while some activities may potentially benefit the organization, they carry certain risks for the individual. For example, the voicing of new ideas might challenge the established way of doing things and go against the vested interests of other members of the organization. In addition, experimentation with new approaches in the workplace might ultimately be unsuccessful, viewed as a failure, and lead the individuals involved to be seen in a negative light. As a result, there is growing evidence to indicate that such risks may lead employees not to contribute to learning processes, and thereby inhibit both individual and organizational learning. The provision of a psychologically safe work environment (i.e., one in which employees feel safe to voice ideas, willingly seek feedback, provide honest feedback, collaborate, take risks and experiment), is one way to overcome such threats to individual and organizational learning. For example, in recent longitudinal work by Google’s People Analytics Unit, psychological safety was identified as the number one characteristic of successful high-performing teams (Newman, Donohue & Eva, 2017).

Amy Edmondson (1999) proposes and substantiates following hypotheses in her explanation of team psychological safety –

  • Learning behavior in teams is positively associated with team performance.
  • Team psychological safety is positively associated with learning behaviour in organizational work teams.
  • Team learning behavior mediates between team psychological safety and team performance
  • Team efficacy is positively associated with team learning behavior.
  • Team efficacy is positively associated with team learning behavior, controlling for the effects of team psycho-logical safety.
  • Team leader coaching and context support are positively associated with team psychological safety.

Edmondson (1999) conceptualizes learning at the group level as an ongoing process of reflection and action, characterized by asking questions, taking risks, seeking feedback, experimenting, reflecting on results, and discussing errors or unexpected outcomes of actions. For a team to discover gaps in its plans and make changes accordingly, team members must test assumptions and discuss differences of opinion openly rather than privately or outside the group. She calls this set of activities as learning behavior, as it is through them that learning is enacted at the group level.

Team psychological safety and team efficacy are thus complementary shared beliefs, one pertaining to interpersonal threat and the other characterizing the team’s potential to perform. Team efficacy thus should supplement team psychological safety’s positive effect on team learning. (Edmondson, 1999).

Building safe workplaces

Newman, Donohue & Eva (2017) identified some prerequisites to ensure psychological safety at workplace. Following are some domains as per them –

Supportive leadership behaviors

Growing research at both the individual and team level has examined the effects of supportive leadership behaviors on work outcomes through psychological safety. For example, at the individual level empirical work has established that leader inclusiveness, support, trustworthiness, openness and behavioral integrity strongly influence employee perceptions of psychological safety, which in turn, drive employee outcomes including voice behaviors, involvement in creative work, job performance and engagement. Similarly, at the team level employees’ collective perceptions of support and coaching forwarded by the team leader, leader inclusiveness, trust in the leader, and the behavioral integrity of the leader have been found to foster team-level outcomes such as team learning behavior, team performance, engagement in quality improvement work, and reduction in errors amongst team members through the development of psychological safety.

Researchers have argued that by listening, forwarding support, and providing clear and consistent directions to subordinates, the leader is able to model to subordinates that it is safe to take risks and engage in honest communication.

Edmondson (1999) adds that if the leader is supportive, coaching-oriented, and has non-defensive responses to questions and challenges, members are likely to conclude that the team constitutes a safe environment. In contrast, if team leaders act in authoritarian or punitive ways, team members may be reluctant to engage in the interpersonal risk involved in learning behaviors such as discussing errors.

Supportive organizational practices

For example, employee perceptions of organizational support, access to mentoring, and diversity practices.

Relationship networks

Social support and the social capital (resources) inherent in relationship networks as key determinants of psychological safety. At the individual level, research has established that rewarding co-worker relationships and the extent to which members of the organization interact with one another on an interpersonal basis, influence individual learning and engagement through the mediating mechanism of psychological safety.

Team characteristics

When there is collective responsibility, team members are less motivated to salvage a project that may fail.

Individual and team differences

Researchers have also found that individual and team differences such as adherence to co-worker norms and self-consciousness, status differences and team members’ sequential cognitive style (i.e., thinking in a logical sequential routine) are associated with psychological safety.
(Excerpts from Newman, Donohue & Eva, 2017).

Many interventions targeted at the organizational and individual levels have been implemented in an attempt to improve the safety and working conditions in the workplace, alleviate or lessen the potential occupational stressors, and/or improve the individual’s coping mechanisms with these stressors. This, in turn, should correlate to increased employee well-being and health with concomitant improvements in individual and organizational consequences (Danna & Griffin, 1999).

Namie (2007) mentions that most European employment laws recognise the effect of work environment can have on workers and incorporate an employer’s “duty of care”, requiring that employees be kept physically and psychologically safe. It is considered an indisputable responsibility for employers.

Outcomes of psychological safety –

(Excerpts from Newman, Donohue & Eva, 2017)

Communication, knowledge sharing and voice behavior

At the individual and team level, psychological safety has been linked to communication outcomes such as greater reporting of treatment errors and more interpersonal communication, as well as greater knowledge sharing among team members.

Learning behaviour

For example, researchers have established positive links between psychological safety and learning
behavior at both the individual and team levels. Psychological safety has also been shown to assist individuals to learn from failure.

Performance, innovation and creativity

As well as directly and strongly influencing performance at the individual and team levels, psychological safety has been found to influence performance indirectly through facilitating learning behavior at both the individual and team. there is growing evidence of a link between employee perceptions of psychological safety within the organization and their creative thinking and risk-taking ability.

Employee attitudes

At the individual level, a number of studies have established a strong and positive link between psychological safety and the work attitudes of employees such as organizational commitment, work engagement and positive attitudes towards teamwork.

Psychological safety and mental health at workplace

Apart from Edmondson’s definition and understanding of psychological safety, alternatively, there is also a mental health approach to it.
A psychologically safe and healthy workplace is one that promotes employees’ psychological well-being and does not harm employee mental health in negligent, reckless or intentional ways (Shain, 2009).

Shain (2009) attempts to increase understanding and acceptance of the term ‘psychologically safe workplace’ and its relation to ‘mental injury’, so that health promotion and human resource professionals are more consistently committed to advocating and working toward the abatement of psychosocial hazards at work.

Freud’s identification of an intimate connection between work and mental health is consistent with a vast body of scientific literature. For one thing, an individual’s experiences at work, be they physical, emotional, mental, or social in nature, obviously affect the person while she or he is in the workplace. In addition, these experiences also “spill over” into non-work domains. Workers spend about one-third of their waking hours at work, and don’t necessarily leave the job behind when they leave the work site. Work related stress combined with the stress from everyday life can lead to detrimental physical and emotional outcomes because of the excess physical and mental demands placed on the human body and mind (Danna 7 Griffin, 1999).

Shain (2009) says at no time during early evolution of thinking about the rights of employees to a safe system of work did it occur to anyone that the protection of mental health, or compensation for its loss or impairment, was contemplated by the legislation.

An unsafe environment is one in which there is a (usually) persistent and repetitious pattern of abusive conduct over time that is ignored, allowed to exist and/or supported by the employer, and no adequate steps are taken to correct the situation. The concept is in reality an articulation of the fact that, in some circumstances, harassment becomes a product of workplace cultures in which the normative beliefs and attitudes of those who manage and of those who are managed support the abusive use of power over others. (Shain, 2009). He defines harassment as – Harassment includes words, gestures and actions which tend to annoy, harm, abuse, torment, pester, persecute, bother and embarrass another person, as well as subjecting someone to vexatious attacks, questions, demands and other unpleasantness. A single act which has a harmful effect may also constitute harassment.
Consequences of workplace bullying range from harm (health, social or economic) to individuals and interference with productive work. Bullying, as a severe form of job strain, affects not only the target, but also the people who witness it (Namie, 2007).

Evolving perspectives on psychosocial risks to mental health embedded in the organization and design of work call for a revised concept of how one responds to such risk at both a corporate and a social level.

Corporate responses

It is important to get beyond the notion that all manifestations of mental distress in the workplace are functions of individual, personality-driven idiosyncrasies. It is equally important then to acknowledge that normal and typically resilient people can be brought to the brink of mental distress, and sometimes pushed over, by conditions of work over which employers have significant control while they as employees have very little (Shain, 2009). Namie (2007) adds creating policies, enforcement procedures, training and education mechanisms to inform and protect employees from psychological injury caused by harassment or bullying can go a long way to ensure employees safety at workplace.

Social responses

The development of national standards for the assessment, prevention and management of psychosocial risks in the workplace will entail convergence of legal, social and scientific opinion to take psychological safety and health as seriously as we take physical safety and health (Shain, 2009).

Healthy workplace

Kelloway & Day (2005) examine the healthy workplace from the perspective of organizational safety. They discuss the environment in which employees are more willing to discuss safety issues (and potential safety violations) with coworkers and superiors. In addition to the safety component of the healthy workplace model, two other components become integral – how management openness (which is a component of interpersonal relationships) and organizational support and norms (which both function as aspects of an organizational culture of support) can predict willingness to discuss safety issues indirectly through employees’ perceived probability of success and perceived risk to image.

Based on the principals of positive psychology, they identify characteristics such as hope, self-efficacy, and optimism as qualities that can be influenced by the workplace and are essential to well-being. The authors, drawing from many studies, thus define healthy workplaces using a “holistic” approach. That is, including both psychosocial and physical factors as predictors of a healthy workplace.


Closely related to the idea of a healthy workplace is stress. There is a vast body of scientific literature linking work features (i.e., potential stressors) to psychological, physical, and behavioural consequences, as well as to organizational consequences. Kelloway & Day (2005) reviewed the work-stress literature and identified the sources of work stress. They propose that six categories of stressors need to be considered: 1) workload and work pace; 2) role stressors (such as conflict, ambiguity, and inter-role conflict); 3) career concerns; 4) work scheduling; 5) interpersonal relationships; and 6) job content and control Kelloway & Day (2005).

In 1990, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the United States declared occupational stress to be one of the 10 leading causes of workplace death and it is now common to speak of occupational stress as an epidemic. Healthy workplaces are a result not only of the absence of “job stressors,” but are also a result of a presence of organizational resources to help employees handle job and life stressors (Kelloway & Day, 2005).

Organisations also pay the cost of stress. They incur economic and social costs when they have unhealthy workplaces. Estimates of the “costs” of stress typically focus on the economic costs of medical care, disability provisions, absence, and lost productivity. Such estimates are seriously biased and dramatically underestimate the effects and costs of workplace stress because work stress is pervasive and influences physical, mental, and organizational health through a myriad of pathways (Kelloway & Day, 2005).

According to the American Psychological Association’s definition of a psychologically healthy workplace, organizations can become healthy by incorporating health promotion activities, offering
employee assistance programs, having flexible benefits and working conditions, treating employees fairly, and offering programs for employee development, health and safety, and the prevention of work stress (Kelloway & Day, 2005).

A number of elements, which include biological factors, environmental hazards, human behavioral factors, and inadequacies in health care, when applied to the problems of occupational health, showed that illness or injury in an individual results from both occupational and non-occupational influences and that the effects vary considerably from person to person (Miller, 1990).

Clearly, we have moved into an era in which the workplace, as a representative microcosm of society, is becoming a principal forum for measuring and promoting physical and mental health. As industry becomes more aware of the economic burden of occupational illness and injury in terms of diminished productivity and escalating medical care costs, businesses will take a much more aggressive role in promoting worker health (Miller, 1990).

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  2. Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly,44(2), 350. doi:10.2307/2666999
  3. Grawitch, M. J., Trares, S., & Kohler, J. M. (2007). Healthy Workplace Practices and Employee Outcomes. International Journal of Stress Management,14(3), 275-293.
  4. Kelloway, K., & Day, A. L. (2005). Building Healthy Workplaces: What We Know So Far. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science,37(4), 223-235.
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  7. Namie, G. (2007). The challenge of workplace bullying. Employment Relations Today,34(2), 43-51.
  8. Newman, A., Donohue, R., & Eva, N. (2017). Psychological safety: A systematic review of the literature. Human Resource Management Review,27(3), 521-535. doi:10.1016/j.hrmr.2017.01.001
  9. Shain, M. (2009). Psychological Safety at Work: Emergence of a Corporate and Social Agenda in Canada. International Journal of Mental Health Promotion,11(3), 42-48. doi:10.1080/14623730.2009.9721791

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