Before 1990, the phrase “psychological safety” did not exist in business phraseology.
Defining psychological safety
In this EgonZehnder article the authors draw its definition from a book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, by business strategist Timothy R. Clark, who defined it as “a condition in which human beings feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo—all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.”
Open, honest and productive
A psychologically safe setting, this article’s authors argue, puts participants at ease so that they feel their contributions can be offered in open, honest, and ultimately productive ways. Absent this sort of environment, some participants may feel inclined to be more insular, risk adverse, and less pro-active to adding to team discussions and taking on core and sometimes projects whose success are not guaranteed.
A leadership function
Creating this environment that ultimately provides sufficient psychological safety is a leadership function, and it is viewed as an increasingly important one to many facets of business operations and success. It starts with the recruitment process itself as prospective employees assess whether such an environment does or does not exist. “An open, respectful culture is high on potential employees’ wish lists,” the authors of this EgonZehnder article contend.
Demanded by employees
Once employees are on board, creating a culture of psychological safety means encouraging new ideas, even if those ideas on the surface may not always appear guaranteed to succeed. Even in failure, the authors argue, leaders and employees blossom through learning and growing—and often that knowledge and growth serves as the foundation for the next great idea that does work.
Building a company that provides psychological safety can best start by both leaders and employees asking themselves some revealing and even provocative questions. The authors see six such categories, and suggest leaders answer them but then also share them with their teams, which reveal some vulnerability that is likely to place other team members at greater ease.
Confronting past failures
The essence of the six questions are designed to confront past failures and how others responded, when team members shared something similar with the leader, and how we confront three not uncommon challenges of business: failures, trepidations that ultimately stall or impede progress, and problems.
Foundations for organizational growth
In these questions the psychological safety of an organization becomes more self-evident and defined, and leaders and team members can learn collectively from their experiences, even when those experiences are not uniformly performed with ease and unequivocal success. The psychological safety that is attached to even failed projects holds value in what it represents for overall organizational growth.