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Why the 5 core elements of “psychological safety” are essential for career and company

Without authenticity, curiosity, and risk-taking we get stuck in the mud — here’s how to make space for resilient progress.
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Key Takeaways
  • Careers in contemporary society are built in the context of fast-paced change and diverse teams. 
  • Knowing the core elements of “psychological safety” is an essential platform upon which to build resilient careers.
  • The core elements of psychological safety permit innovation rooted in collaboration and creativity.

Technology and social change mean that careers are now built in a fast-changing landscape that is digital, dispersed, diverse and dynamic. This is not necessarily negative. Steven Bartlett, in his book The Diary of a CEO, states that “businesses that experiment faster, fail faster and then continue to experiment, nearly always outpace the competition.” He adds that “failure gives you power.” 

While this may be true, constantly changing conditions can also lead to anxiety and avoidance of risk. No one wants to be the one to drop the ball. This can create inertia for both organizational and career development. There can be a fear that any kind of perceived failure will be punished by being passed over for future promotion.

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The culture described by Bartlett, in which people feel able to try out ideas, make mistakes and learn, depends on “psychological safety.” Psychological safety creates the conditions in which businesses and organizations can experience increased productivity, resilience and innovation rooted in collaboration and creativity. 

What is “psychological safety”?

Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” In the absence of psychological safety, people will be more risk-averse, anxious and mistakes are more likely to be denied and covered up. People may retreat into self-protective silos and blame others for errors. This inhibits collaboration and productivity. The avoidance of dealing with difficulties and mistakes can come back later to torpedo both teams and personal careers. I am going to offer five core elements of psychological safety for career development. 

#1. Show don’t tell

When it comes to creating an environment of psychological safety, it is important that this is demonstrated “from the top.” In whatever sphere of influence you find yourself, you can make an impact on the atmosphere and culture by how you respond to challenges, mistakes and failures. If you respond with criticism or even frustration, it is likely to increase any tendencies to avoid risk and “blame-shift” in the team. 

Leaders do have to operate within organizational parameters. Part of leadership is defining WHAT has to happen. HOW it happens may present scope for new ideas and approaches, but these will not be forthcoming unless the leader can foster a culture of psychological safety. Under these conditions, production may speed up and more novel innovations may be generated by the team. This model of leadership is collaborative and aimed at enabling the team to flourish and create its own solutions. 

#2. It’s OK to disagree

One of the biggest obstacles to growth and productivity can be fear. Fear of upsetting others, fear of being sanctioned, or fear of reputational damage. Psychological safety is not just about being nice to people. An essential component of psychological safety is the ability to disagree well. For this to work the team needs to agree to having conversations where it’s OK to risk half-formed ideas, to challenge and stress-test others’ thinking, and raise objections and questions. 

One of the key signs that psychological safety is being practiced is the presence of good questions and “clean” listening.

This approach requires a certain detachment between conversations and personal identity and status. Conversations can be viewed like a laboratory, a place for experimentation. Inside these spaces there needs to be room for disagreement and different opinions. The leader co-creates this space with the team, possibly agreeing the boundaries of acceptable behavior: for example, disagreeing respectfully. This process doesn’t have to be make-or-break for career advancement or reputation. 

#3. Be authentically you

Psychological safety is closely linked to the individuals ability to be authentic. I would argue that in terms of career progression, authenticity and a certain level of self-awareness are essential. This is linked to emotional intelligence and the ability to not only know one’s own feelings and thoughts but also being able to voice them. 

If everyone in a team hides their feelings to fit in, there will be quick agreement, minimal discussion, and a lack of any kind of conflict. There will also be less innovation, resilience and creative problem-solving. Inauthenticity can be bad for business. 

If colleagues are aware of how they feel — whether they are uncomfortable with something and able to respectfully express an alternate point of view — they are practicing authenticity. They can navigate disagreements with others who have contrary points of view. This personal authenticity is the foundation for group authenticity which is essential for psychological safety. 

A key part of authenticity is the ability to ask questions, and to express confusion or lack of understanding. This takes us to the next core element.

#4. Remain curious

Some leaders feel they must know all the answers. While in some contexts this is helpful, for any situation that deals with relational complexity, whether in a team or between a business and client, this expert position can be unhelpful. Some forms of leadership over-focus on giving solutions, but run the risk of basing these solutions on assumptions which are in turn based on past experience rather than what’s happening now. 

A team with higher levels of psychological safety will be quicker to move from analysis paralysis to action.

Increasingly, career progression in business organizations has been linked to the ability to shift from an “expert” position to one of curiosity. One of the key signs that psychological safety is being practiced is the presence of good questions and “clean” listening. Curiosity has different components within it. Assumptions based on past experience may be helpful but should be held lightly. Open-ended questions can be asked and answers listened to carefully. This can reveal new information that may even contradict the “received wisdom.” 

#5. Jump into the sea

Whether in career development or in business meetings there is sometimes a “paralysis of analysis.” This means that all possible permutations and possibilities are exhaustively explored, all risks covered off and all options weighed before anything actually happens. This is often a sign of a group that has low psychological safety. 

A team with higher levels of psychological safety will be quicker to move from analysis paralysis to action. They will be less risk-averse and within agreed parameters will be prepared to take acceptable risks in order to progress. This means that any feedback or learning from trying new ideas will come in quicker, and adaptions and adjustments can happen faster. 

Moving into action and tolerating risk is a consequence of feeling safe enough to take the plunge. It is hard to imagine many of the scientific and cultural innovations being possible without risk, and when risk gets results, this can also move careers forward. 

Whether at the level of the organizational or personal development, these five core elements of psychological safety foster conditions for innovation and productivity. The reason people get stuck in their career is often that they don’t feel safe enough to take the necessary risks and initiatives necessary to go to the next level.

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