What is Psychological Safety?

Why is it so important in organisations? How do you ensure you have it? Below we explore this in more detail and come up some suggestions to help you foster psychological safety in your organisation.

In 1990, William Kahn defined Psychological Safety as:

Being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career”

This was later built on by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson.

At WorkInConfidence we would suggest that it also encompasses:

Feeling safe expressing views on any problem, concern, idea or suggestion to anyone and in any forum in your organisation.

We feel that the aspect of being safe in front of anyone in the organisation, however senior and in any forum are key.  Without this there can be no certainty – and uncertainty will destroy psychological safety.

Why is Psychological Safety Important?

Fear of negative consequences holds people back from expressing themselves and contributing to discussions which may advance or enhance the organisation.

That fear may be of ridicule or feeling of looking stupid, marginalisation, punishment in the form of damaged career prospects or even dismissal. The fear may often be legitimate, but even irrational fear can be a major inhibitor of people expressing views openly.

If your people can speak up openly then your organisation will find it easier to:

  • Indentify problems, earlier and more often.
  • Enhance teamwork and sharing of information.
  • Operate better.
  • Foster Innovation by:
    • Taking risks;
    • Sharing risks with others – which helps ensure risks taken are not wild.

In 2012, Google’s Project Aristotle developed 5 key factors they felt made great teams successful. Psychological safety was considered to be the key one.

How to Create and Maintain Psychological Safety

If we accept that Psychological Safety is important and can considerably benefit organisations and their people, how do we create it?

Here are some ways which help:

1. Embed foundations for it in your values

Your organisational values should create a clear, simple, unequivocal foundation to build psychological safety on.  This for example could be as simple as “Respect each other”. 

2. Live your values

Values are of use when they are lived and become part of the fabric of an organisation. So, don’t just pin them up in Reception, clearly demonstrate you’re living them everday.

3. Lead from the top

To embed your values and psychological safety you must do it right from the top.  Great leaders don’t tell you about their values – they live and breathe those values. If leaders haven’t bought into the values, they are destroyed throughout the organisation.

4. Live your values every day

Values can be like the hardest of ceramics.  They can be incredibly tough and durable – and provide you with strength in the toughest of times. But if you let this slip now and then, its hugely hard to recover. This point is critical. Psychological safety works when its 100% of the time but not 98%.  At 98%, people will always fear they may be in the 2%!

5. Learn to listen

If you are to have deep psychological safety in your organisation learn to listen.  Listen actively. Listen respectfully. Give everyone a voice. Recognise some people find using their voice incredibly stressful.  Never denigrate, be dismissive and never put colleagues down – make sure all your team does the same. 

6. Teach listening

Active listening does not come naturally for everyone. Consider including active listening in your training and development – at all levels of the organisation.

7. Be clear on the rules of conduct

Make it clear right across your organisation that respect, listening, learning is always expected. 

8. Embrace integrity and openness

Part of feeling psychologically safe is seeing colleagues speak out and not suffer as a result.  Make sure your organisation gets into the habit of this.

9. Appreciate your people

Develop a culture or appreciation of your people. Celebrate speaking up.  Recognise people coming up with suggestions.  Celebrate the big and the small – not just when senior management are in the limelight.

10. Be kind

Develop a culture of kindness.   Do this until it catches on throughout the organisation.  Kindness is contagious and eventually it will become second nature.

11. Create safety routes

Make sure your staff can tell you when you aren’t getting it right. Make sure there are safe ways for them to do this.


Psychological Safety is increasingly recognised as being critical to the health of organisations. Enabling teams to avoid problems before they escalate and suggest improvements so you operate efficiently and contribute to innovation.

It’s not rocket science. You could say it’s a posh way of saying always treat each other with respect so people feel comfortable always being their authentic selves.

Like so many things, you have to plan, repeat, and embed it into your culture.  At the end of the day the time in doing so will almost certainly pay dividends.

Good luck – and if you have any comments or suggestions, please join in the conversation below.  I don’t bite, although if I am honest that is learned behaviour which took me until well into my 30’s to learn!

Protect: Anonymous Speak Up: A safe and secure way for your people to anonymously raise concerns via phone, tablet, or PC, ensuring you are aware of any workplace issues and can respond quickly and accordingly

Consolidated Case Management: A secure online place to record, track, update, and report on all speaking up matters, whether raised through WorkInConfidence or directly.

Surveys: Easily set up, run and interpret surveys on engagement, respect, wellness or other topics to ensure you always understand your people, their needs and motivations.

Discussion Boards: Demonstrate your commitment to collaboration with discussion boards to accelerate employee engagement and gain greater insights – anonymous if required.