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Psychological Safety


There has been a growing movement toward improving workplace culture over the last few years, and exploration of effectively implementing the practice of Psychological Safety in your office will unlock employee potential better than anything else you can do. I recently finished Amy' Edmondson’s book, The Fearless Organization, which explores decades of research into the matter and consolidates into a practical guide for workforce implementation. The below article draws from that book, except where linked to other sources or where I share personal experiences.

It’s not about work perks like vacation days or reimbursed gym membership fees. Nor is it about office perks like catered lunches and stand up desks. It’s far more subtle, but also significantly more powerful. I’ll spend a fair amount of space talking about two workplace environment examples, but if you read to the end, you’ll get some key pointers on how to implement psychological safety in your workplace environment. The whole organization doesn’t have to buy in - you can practice it in just your department.

Psychological Safety is defined as an environment where one believes they won’t be punished for making an error. In a world obsessed with creating seamless products that operate flawlessly, this feels counterintuitive. Shouldn’t we be promoting error-free teams that complete projects on time and under-budget? I mean, that would be brilliant, but you have to follow a process to get there. This counter-intuitive approach will get you to that ideal state faster and cheaper than any other method.

In The Fearless Organization, Amy explores many case studies for both good and bad environments, ultimately demonstrating that the highest performing teams practice psychological safety. She often references Project Aristotle, a Google initiative that worked to identify what its best teams differently. I’ll leave those examples for when you read the book, and, instead, reference some conversations I’ve had with managers and that demonstrate good and bad psychological safety practices.

It’s always better to end on a high note, so let’s start with an example of poor psychological safety. I was talking with a manager about how he could improve his department’s efficiency. I’d spent a fair amount of time exploring the ins-and-outs of the people under his care and had identified, unfortunately, that most of them were quite unhappy. They were well paid, their hours weren’t terrible (though they could have been much better), they had great benefits, and the work they did had an easily quantifiable positive impact on other people’s lives. However, there was one problem that ruined the possibility of a good culture. The manager told me that his role was “to make his boss happy.” Talk about a conversation ender; I spent about five more minutes trying to demonstrate to him why that perspective was remarkably flawed but to no avail. This is the opposite of a psychologically safe environment as the manager in this scenario sought nothing but his boss’s approval, which would inevitably result in his promotion. Perhaps some of the blame is to be placed on his supervisor, who wouldn’t be willing to hear negative (read as “constructive”) feedback.

He wasn’t interested in the creativity that I knew his employees harnessed. He created a clock-in, clock-out environment where people kept their heads down, did mediocre work, and looked for opportunities to move on to something new. I watched people make inconsequential mistakes and try to cover them out of fear of being ostracized.

On the flip-side, I talked to a senior manager who had a policy that he called “Owners vs. Renters.” Think about this in terms of vehicles. When you rent a car, you know you’re going to give it back. It’s an excuse to push the accelerator harder and take turns faster as you get from point A to point B. You turn it back in, and any irreversible damage is ultimately the rental car company’s problem. But, when you own a car, you’re invested in its longevity, because it’s on you to fix the engine when it breaks. You accelerate smartly, brake smoothly, and keep the oil topped off. This senior manager aptly applied this notion in his office environment, encouraging his employees to take ownership of their work. When a warning sign appeared that indicated something wasn’t right he both thanked people for reporting the issue and praised people who came up with ideas to solve it. He knew that reporting an error early makes it easier to fix. People trusted each other in that environment because they didn’t have to look over their shoulder when they made minor infractions.

That senior manager understood the fundamentals of Psychological Safety. He knew that to improve he needed to know when something was going wrong. If you don’t know where your errors are, you can’t fix them. The fastest way to innovate is to be open to new ideas, test them, and shut them down quickly when things are not going well. You’re not lowering your quality standards; you just ensure that when something isn’t up to standard people are comfortable talking about it.

So how can your team begin your journey to increased psychological safety? Here are three things I think are essential.

1) Admit personal failure. This is especially hard to do as a manager as we think we have to be perfect for others to listen to us. People respect and are drawn to vulnerability. Seeing that you’re not perfect makes it easier for others to share their own mistakes and report errors and issues.

2) “Fail Fast." It’s a common Silicon Valley phrase that I’m not generally a fan of, but it fits this context. Aggressive error seeking allows you to know if something is a waste of time or money faster. Armed with this knowledge you can iterate to improve, or decide a project isn’t worth the money and shut it down quickly. Learn to appreciate people who identify errors; they’re saving you time and money in the long run.

3) Give constructive feedback frequently, ask for feedback often. This is management 101. It’s easier to make small course corrections with higher frequency than occasional large course corrections. Fostering an environment where feedback is the norm improves candid conversation, deepens trust, and ensures a high standard of work is consistently upheld.

If you’re interested in implementing psychological safety practices in your workplace, I’d love to chat with you.

David EndeanComment