This article is based on the chapter with the same name in Duena’s book People Before Tech: The Importance of Psychological Safety and Teamwork in the Digital Age.
Just as it is important that we state and understand what Psychological Safety is, we also need to state and understand what it is not.
This is important because there have been instances where, as with any other new and radical concept, people have misunderstood the meaning of it. They have applied their own lens and have then adopted its inaccurate definition anyway, and doing so does neither concept any favours. This is further complicated by how the confusion with most of these topics is entirely understandable because they are all connected to people topics and therefore collectively, new topics for all of us.
Over the years, there have been several articles such as Psychological Safety Is Not a Hygiene Factor by Amy Edmondson, Psychological Safety – What it is NOT by Duena Blomstrom and Psychological Safety is Not Nice
by Ffion Jones, that aim to demystify and clarify some of these misconceptions.
Here is a list of the things that Psychological Safety is not:
About mental health
This particular term conflation is the most destructive because it takes away the rightful amount of attention each topic deserves. While team members who work in psychologically safe teams are likely to be experiencing higher levels of mental wellbeing, mental health as a topic is an individual and complex concept that is separate from the team dynamic Psychological Safety describes. The topic of mental health is too important for this confusion to stand.
About job security
Some people presume it is synonymous with “job security”. This is not only incorrect but it also describes a state of lazy complacency which is the opposite of the high performing, innovative creative and highly productive environment that the presence of Psychological Safety creates.
Unfortunately, it is never a “once and done” endeavour. There is no workshop or seminar that can instil Psychological Safety in a team and it would then remain the same consistently. In fact, Psychological Safety is not only ever-changing, which is why you should find ways to measure it continuously on a dashboard. But it is also incredibly fragile, as the team’s willingness to be open is susceptible to a myriad of external and internal factors. Therefore, the only way to maintain PS is to always check on it and engage in activities to increase it.
About the leadership
It is a group behavioural norm, so it’s about the team and not anything that any specific individual – be they a leader or not – can affect in isolation. This is one of the most prevalent misconceptions, and the vast majority of advice out there focuses on the leader’s actions and insists said leader simply models open and vulnerable behaviour. This is an extreme disservice to the concept, as evaluating and nurturing Psychological Safety is only achievable as a group effort.
An innate personality trait or a specific skillset
Some believe that being an extrovert is what makes some people more likely to be able to express themselves freely in a team context than others. They also believe that those educated in humanistic disciplines are better equipped to create PS. This isn’t true – this amazing team dynamic is never about one part but the sum of all of them and irrespective of personality traits or training, people have immense reserves to be open when the environment feels safe enough.
Psychological Safety is akin to trust between two individuals but at a group level in a matrix that involves a multitude of relational rapports and emotional involvements.
Some people believe that teams that are emotionally close are also Psychologically Safe but while close relationships are one of the elements that may breed PS, that is only one aspect of the dynamic and not sufficient in of itself. In fact, too much closeness in the absence of resilience and courage may cause people to attempt to protect each other’s feelings and not speak up because they engage in the negative behaviour of PS – impression management.
About being nice
Further to the above, Psychological Safety isn’t about having people pretend all is rosy and keep a fake positive environment – on the contrary, it is about constructive conflict in pursuit of the best solution.
A license to be unkind in the name of extreme honesty or radical cantor
The flip side of how it isn’t all about just being nice is that some people believe that PS teams are to be brutal in their openness and give blunt and cutting feedback. That isn’t true either. Psychological Safety comes easiest to teams that intensely care about the shared mission and each other, so they will also treat each other with empathy and compassion and therefore be considerate in their language and engagements.
“Fluffy” or a moral imperative
Many executives erroneously think of Psychological Safety as a “nice to have” dynamic that they should look into because it is the right thing to do. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we examine the clear performance indicators it directly and dramatically affects. Psychological Safety reflects directly in the bottom line through high performing teams.
Something that can not be measured
Before tools like ours came to the market, the only ways to measure the existence of Psychological Safety were very rudimentary surveys based on Dr Amy Edmondson’s academic one, which was offering a binary answer as to its presence or absence in the opinion of the respondents.
It has since become clear that Psychological Safety is not an esoteric black-box but a collection of desirable behaviours that can be individually tracked, surveyed and evaluated. These days there are tools on the market to help measure and maintain PS for the teams ready to undergo the people work by addressing each and every behaviour on a continuous basis.
Possible outside of the team
This can not be said enough – looking for Psychological Safety hierarchically or laterally is a bad idea – PS only exists at the team-bubble level. Furthermore, the dynamic only makes sense in true teams, a number of individuals that work together regularly with goodwill and a common goal and not mere workgroups or other work structures.
Come back next week to read about Psychological Safety in Numbers.