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What is Psychological Safety – and why it’s not natural

Safe to Great

In “Safe to Great – the New Psychology of Leadership,” Skip Bowman intricately explores the interplay between psychological safety, growth mindset, and high performance. In this guide, we aim to provide a detailed model that connects psychological safety with growth mindset.

Safe to Great book written by Skip Bowman
Safe to Great book written by Skip Bowman

Before integrating these concepts into the Safe2Great model, let’s delve into each one independently. Starting with psychological safety, a term coined by Amy Edmondson, it refers to a team’s shared belief in the safety for interpersonal risk-taking. 

Psychological safety

Psychological safety, a term popularized by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, refers to the shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It is the foundation of an environment where individuals can freely voice opinions, ask questions, and acknowledge errors without fearing negative consequences. Edmondson’s research indicates that teams that embrace psychological safety often learn and innovate more, attributing this to a culture of open communication and risk-taking.

The concept of psychological safety is particularly relevant in modern, complex organizational structures. In environments where rapid change and innovation are the norms, the ability to experiment, voice diverse opinions, and learn from mistakes is critical. A lack of psychological safety can lead to a fear-driven atmosphere, stifling creativity, open dialogue, and ultimately, growth and development.

Extensive studies, including a prominent two-year research project by Google and insights from social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina, have underscored the importance of psychological safety in high-performing teams. These teams view failures as opportunities for learning and growth. The presence of psychological safety fosters positive emotions like trust, curiosity, and confidence, which are instrumental in broadening the team’s creative and problem-solving capabilities.

Leaders play a crucial role in cultivating psychological safety. A leadership style that values open relationships, respects diverse viewpoints, and challenges conventional norms is vital. Leaders must create a culture where team members feel valued, respected, and included, promoting fairness and equality. According to organizational consultant Timothy R. Clark, psychological safety involves feeling included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo, without fear of embarrassment or punishment.

True psychological safety goes beyond mere politeness or being nice. It involves honest feedback, admitting mistakes, and fostering a culture of continuous learning among team members. In such an environment, individuals feel comfortable being themselves, sharing their thoughts, and taking risks. This openness is essential for nurturing the vulnerability that drives innovation and growth.

Psychological safety is not just a nice-to-have; it’s a critical component for high-performing teams and innovative organizations. It enables teams to fully realize their potential, enhancing collaboration, innovation, and overall success. In today’s complex work environments, where adaptation and resilience are key, psychological safety is vital for fostering a sense of connection and building a robust growth mindset. By prioritizing psychological safety, organizations can create a fertile ground for development, collaboration, and breakthrough achievements.

Learning and Performance are shaped by relationships

The core contribution of psychological safety to our understanding of workplace performance is its emphasis on the relational aspect. This perspective clearly illustrates that the quality of relationships within a team or organization is a critical determinant of our capacity to learn, challenge norms, grow, and ultimately achieve success. This relational theory underpins not only the Safe2Great approach but also shapes our definition of a growth mindset, which will be elaborated on later in this discussion.

The social nature of learning is a key component in this context. We learn effectively when we are part of healthy relationships, and conversely, our ability to learn is hindered in the presence of unhealthy relationships. This understanding is crucial as it guides how teams and individuals interact, collaborate, and develop within the workplace.

Why is so important and so hard to build psychological safety?

Incorporating Psychological Safety in Modern Corporate Teams: A Challenge Against Human DNA

Creating a psychologically safe environment in today’s corporate teams is a complex task, particularly when considering the innate tendencies of human DNA. Naturally, humans gravitate towards more protective team structures rather than those fostering a growth mindset. This inherent preference can present significant challenges in developing teams that are adaptable, diverse, and growth-oriented.

Human DNA is predisposed to favor teams that offer a sense of protection, often characterized by loyalty, a singular identity, and stability. Such teams provide a sense of security and predictability, where members are united by commonalities and a clear understanding of their roles and the group’s norms. This inclination towards protective teams is deeply rooted in our evolutionary need for safety and belonging. However, while this may create a strong sense of unity, it can also lead to environments that are resistant to change, less open to diverse perspectives, and restrictive in terms of personal and collective growth.

In contrast, teams oriented towards a growth mindset prioritize common purposes, embrace diversity, and adapt fluidly to changing circumstances. These teams are marked by their ability to foster an environment where exploration, innovation, and challenge are encouraged. The key differences lie in the team’s ability to grow rather than restrict. Growth-minded teams value diverse identities and perspectives, recognizing that these differences can lead to richer, more creative solutions and a more dynamic team dynamic. Such teams are also more comfortable with fluidity, understanding that change and adaptability are essential for growth and success in today’s fast-paced business world.

The challenge for modern organizations is to overcome the natural DNA predisposition towards protective teams and cultivate environments that encourage a growth mindset. This involves actively promoting diversity, encouraging open communication, and creating a culture where team members feel safe to express their ideas and take risks. Leaders play a crucial role in this transformation, as they must model the behaviors and values of a growth-oriented team, such as openness to new ideas, flexibility in the face of change, and a commitment to learning and development.

In summary, while human DNA may naturally incline towards protective team structures, the evolving demands of the modern workplace require a shift towards teams that are more growth-minded, embracing common purposes, diversity, and fluidity. Achieving this balance is essential for fostering psychological safety and ensuring that teams are equipped to thrive in a complex and ever-changing business landscape.

Inner and Outer Psychological Safety

In understanding psychological safety within both personal and organizational contexts, it’s essential to differentiate between inner and outer psychological safety, as they are fundamental to fostering a conducive environment for growth and adaptability.

Inner psychological safety is primarily about the individual’s internal landscape. It encompasses self-awareness, where individuals understand their own mindset and practice mindfulness and presence. This self-mastery allows for reframing failure, adopting constructive attributions, and encouraging experimentation, thus fostering a mindset of ‘Stop Challenge Choose’ and evaluating the risks realistically (‘What’s The Worse That Could Happen?’). Inner safety is rooted in the individual’s ability to navigate personal challenges and growth, overcoming the false sense of security that often hinders true development.

Outer psychological safety, conversely, is about the environment that surrounds individuals, particularly in a team or organizational setting. It is established through stages that foster psychological safety, as described in the ‘6 Stages of Psychological Safety’. These stages begin with ‘Belonging’, where an atmosphere of unconditional acceptance and regard is created, akin to a close-knit family where everyone feels loved and cared for. The journey progresses through ‘Shared Path’, emphasizing unity and a common purpose; ‘Space to Learn’, marked by guidance and mentoring; ‘Increasing Voice and Responsibility’, empowering individuals to express ideas and contribute to decision-making; ‘Freedom to Explore’, encouraging creativity and innovation; and culminating in ‘Freedom to Challenge and Grow’, the pinnacle of psychological safety where individuals feel free to challenge norms and foster a culture of ongoing self-improvement.

Image depicting the differences between inner and outer psychological safety and their foundation to growth mindset.
Image depicting the differences between inner and outer psychological safety and their foundation to growth mindset.

The interplay between inner and outer psychological safety is critical. Inner psychological safety empowers individuals with the confidence and resilience to engage actively in their environment. Outer psychological safety, on the other hand, provides the supportive context necessary for individuals to apply their inner strengths and capacities. This synergy is crucial for organizations aiming to cultivate environments that are adaptable, diverse, and growth-oriented.

The key to navigating the complexities of modern organizational life lies in balancing these two aspects of psychological safety. By nurturing both, individuals and teams can transcend traditional protective structures and embrace a mindset that values common goals, diversity, and adaptability. This holistic approach to psychological safety is fundamental to creating a thriving culture that encourages continuous learning, open communication, and collective success.

Ultimate Guide to Growth Mindset

The 6 Stages of Psychological Safety

Skip Bowman, keynote speaker on psychological safety and growth mindset

Skip Bowman

Author of Safe2Great, keynote speaker on psychological safety and growth mindset


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