The HR expert on the stage spoke about the importance of mental health in the workplace, highlighting the need for psychological safety. A CEO in the audience scoffed at the idea, saying psychological safety was “nonsense.” This leader was making a common mistake: confusing psychological safety with comfort.
The term “psychological safety” can elicit images of a soft, protected bubble where feel-good emotions reign supreme. But that’s not what the term really means.
Amy Edmondson, a professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, popularized the term psychological safety. It’s when employees feel safe to take interpersonal risks, such as speaking up, asking questions, sharing ideas, and admitting mistakes, without fearing negative consequences to their self-image, status, or career.
Taking these risks never feels completely comfortable. It’s always a stretch.
Psychological safety is about creating a healthy environment where employees can say what needs to be said—even when it is uncomfortable—in order to grow, learn, and become better. That’s not nonsense; it’s good business.
If you go on a construction job site, it’s mandatory to put on a hard hat. Why split your skull open when a simple form of protection can reduce the chance of injury? I think of psychological safety in the same way. When you consciously cultivate a culture where it feels safe (not necessarily comfortable) to say what needs to be said in service of learning, growing, and improving, there’s less opportunity for someone to get hurt.
I was once called on to assist with a problem that arose during an event with 100-plus people. The staff was upset with each other. Psychological safety allowed them to clean up the mess and resolve the issue before it became a full-blown crisis affecting the whole experience. One of the staff members said they appreciated how the skills we used allowed differences to be directly addressed, instead of festering and becoming worse. That’s psychological safety. We didn’t run from, avoid, or escalate the conflict.
Just like a hard hat protects construction workers, psychological safety protects people from the power games, emotional immaturity, and other dysfunctions that run amok in organizations. Psychological safety creates a resilient organization, not a soft, cushy, or fake feel-good culture. It may be safe, but it is not necessarily comfortable.
When employees and leaders feel safe to express ideas, take risks, and share perspectives without fear of negative consequences, they’re more likely to contribute innovative solutions and ideas. Psychological safety fosters a culture of open communication and collaboration, leading to higher productivity and creativity within the team.
To me, the heart of psychological safety is being open to others. If you’re a leader, how often do you dismiss another’s idea? Maybe you tell them why it won’t work, or that you’ve tried it before, or that there are not enough resources to make it happen. All that may be true from your perspective. From the employee’s perspective, though, you have shut them down.
What are the ways in which you use your positional power in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that stop people? What are the ways you could shift, to whatever degree possible, allowing others to express ideas? Just as important as creating a healthy culture, psychological safety gives leaders more spaciousness as they hold the container for everyone’s best to come forward, including their own.
Far from being nonsensical or comfortable, psychological safety is not a “nice to have” feature in the workplace; it’s a critical component for creating a healthy, productive, and thriving organizational culture.
Learn about developing psychological safety skills with others in Wholebeing Institute’s Positive Psychology Fundamentals course, or learn how to live into your best in our Introduction to Wholebeing Happiness course.
As the founder of Wholebeing Institute, Megan McDonough leads with divergent thinking and creative perspectives to build organizations and networks that harness the best in people for the greatest good. She has decades of leadership experience in diverse settings, in roles ranging from Alliance Manager of a $300 million relationship at DuPont; to General Manager of RISE at Kripalu, the largest yoga retreat center in North America; to numerous online-learning startups. A yoga enthusiast, Megan has practiced for more than 20 years and taught for more than a decade, and brings that mindfulness practice to her leadership. Her degree in biology, natural science, and nuclear medicine has little to do with her current work, and everything to do with her radically receptive approach to life. She is the award-winning author of four books on living mindfully.