The concept of Psychological Safety is surfacing increasingly in our work. People learn and perform best when they feel psychologically safe. In environments where one feels unsure or hesitant about suggesting or trying new ideas, we find that learning and creativity become suppressed. Psychological safety in individuals has been defined as an employee’s sense of being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences. To take this one step further, it can also be described as one’s perception about the consequences of interpersonal risk in their work environment. The concept applies at the team and organisational level too. It is the belief that the shared or collective environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking. This includes being able to learn from mistakes and suggest new ideas. Frequently in organisations, when something goes wrong, we look for those we can point the finger at. Instant blame and criticism can lead to what has been called a ‘circular firing squad’. We can recognise its familiarity in business, politics, churches and the military. Cultures based on this methodology will also see that it has subtle but measurable consequences, undermining our capacity to learn. In increasing punishment, openness is reduced and owning up for mistakes or past misdemeanours is driven underground. Combatting this tendency will unleash trust, openness, resilience and growth. A correlation between psychological safety of teams and productivity leading to economic performance has been proven. We can learn much from neuroscience on this theme.
The Triadic Brain was the focus of work by Ernst, Hardin & Pine in 2006. We know that people will consider and weigh up whether certain behaviour will result in negative consequences and what the potential impact could be. Behaviours that are considered acceptable in one organisation might be unacceptable in another. It is also possible that as organisations embark on cultural change initiatives behaviours that used to be accepted or even tolerated, suddenly become unacceptable, objectionable or even distasteful. Examples of dignity at work and prevention of sexual harassment come to mind. How an organisation handles such change can be akin to walking a tight rope. In order to send the message, that certain previous behaviours are no longer acceptable, punishment may be given to an individual or team. In doing so, others assess that the situation could become unsafe for them to admit to similar behaviour or even mention what they have observed with others. There is a real balance to be struck. A multipronged strategy is required to gain, preserve or improve an environment of psychological safety whilst moving towards cultural change.
The neural system which is activated when judging psychological safety is the triadic brain which consists of the amygdala which detects threat, the ventral striatum which indicates reward and the ventro-medial prefrontal cortex which modulates the activation of the other structures by interpreting the context. The ventro-medial prefrontal cortex will also regulate our emotional response to an event.
Organisations which promote psychological safety will benefit from higher quality connections and interactions amongst colleagues. On the basis that we like to engage in activities that make us thrive and flourish, employee engagement and productivity levels are likely to be much higher. Psychologically safe organisations are also much more likely to be environments where employees will report mistakes or highlight inappropriate misdemeanours.
A psychologically safe environment does not necessarily mean that an organisation will be risk free. It should however, help to ensure that risks are taken with a mindset of learning and creativity rather than a sense of worry about how ideas and suggestions are perceived and accepted.
1. Kahn, W. A (1990). ‘Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work’. Academy of Management Journal 33 (4), 692-724.
2. Ernst, M, Hardin, H and Pine, D (2006). ‘Triadic Model of the Neurobiology of Motivated Behaviour in Adolescence’.
3. Syed, M (2015). ‘Black Box Thinking’.
4. ITS Applied Neuroscience Programme, 2018.