Have you ever been in a situation whereby you have an opinion but choose not to voice it out for the fear of retribution? Have you tried saying something only to be considered the disruptor of harmony, the troublemaker, or even the insensitive one? Have you also thought that silence is probably the best choice to make if your thoughts would not be acceptable?

Welcome to the world of not having psychological safety at work.

But what is psychological safety, anyway?


The Concept of Psychological Safety


The concept of psychological safety was coined by an organizational behaviorist scientist Dr. Amy Edmondson, a professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. She defines psychological safety as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”.

According to William A. Kahn in his book  “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work”, he defines psychological safety as a one’s ability to show and employ their self without the fear of negative consequences on one’s self-image, career or status.

In another definition by Timothy R Clark in 2019 The 4 Stages Of Psychological Safety | The Horizons Tracker”, it describes the condition in which one feels included, safe to learn, safe to contribute as well as safe to challenge the status quo – all without the fear of embarrassment, being marginalized or punished in some ways.

Psychological safety at work is an integral part in creating a conducive and productive environment in which individuals could be at their best.

“If you can’t say something nice, (don’t) say nothing at all”

Image by Iona (Lizzy) Bond Lopez via picsart.com

Sounds familiar, right? As children, we’ve been exposed to cartoons and a host of other literature and resources telling us not to say something unkind to another person. A great example is Thumper from the cartoon Bambi. What has this got to do with psychological safety?

It is often said that the common misconception about psychological safety is that it is equated to being kind. Many people may quickly jump to agree or disagree with this, but it depends on how we define the action of kindness.

According to Dictionary.com, the word Kind as an adjective described as having or showing a friendly, generous and considerate nature. It’s also a synonym of good-natured and warm-hearted, as well as having good intent. But the word Considerate carries the meaning of having carried careful thought and not inconveniencing others.

In a nutshell, psychological safety is not equated to being kind. In some circumstances, it is necessary to tell someone that they are going down the wrong path because it is the truth and our intentions are right. It’s about not having the fear of negative consequences when one expresses their thoughts. But there is indeed a line to draw. And that is where it gets tricky: Our message delivery method. And that is where kindness should reside, not in the main message.


Shifting the reverse gears to basic communication skill


Living in a world that is more connected than ever with the power of social media and democratization of knowledge, people are finding themselves in a conflicting position. On one hand, the wealth of knowledge is just a Google search away. On the other, diversity of thoughts and beliefs collide. The change was so rapid that people are not well-equipped with skills to handle the differences in opinion and ideas. So, how do we live in a world like that?

Through meaningful communication. A lot of feedback. And the one thing I’d like to highlight here is the concept of “constructive feedback”.

There is a great deal of difference between giving constructive feedback vs. giving destructive comments. One aims to point out a problem and provide a possible way to improve it. But the other aims to destroy the other person, or to put it in another way, said with malice or ill-intent.

So, if there is one change that should be introduced into the school curriculum, it’s that the students should learn how to be better communicators. The supposed “soft skills” that once took second place has suddenly become an ESSENTIAL SKILL in the future of work. Students must learn how to give constructive feedback and take constructive feedback. Along with the students, adults like business people and parents should be involved in this so we could all learn how to admit our mistakes and make changes for the better.


“T” is for Trust


TRUST is the word that is always associated with the term psychological safety. In relationships, trust plays an important role as the intermediary to facilitate communication to bring about valuable exchanges such as ideas, innovation, knowledge and solutions. It is about how one evaluates the view one has of another person. When one feels safe enough to share their thoughts or express their ideas, it opens the conversation up to more possibilities.

Trust by Bernard Hermant

One simple example a kindergarten teacher once shared was, “Are you comfortable enough to let out an embarrassing fart in front of another person?”

That might seem like a funny or ridiculous example, but it does drive a strong point. Flatulence has been associated with being “dirty” due to the smell emitted and letting one out in public is considered inappropriate in a civilized setting. But it is also a natural process in which gas is accumulated in the alimentary canal and the body would have to find a way to expel it to avoid causing discomfort to the body. And this situation begs the next question: WHO are you comfortable with to fart in their presence?

If a person were to be put in an environment where they’re not allowed to break wind, it would cause some level of discomfort and self-censorship that would make the experience of the individual less comfortable. But if the same individual were to go home to his or her family and lets a loud one out that incites laughter and funny expressions from their family, the level of self-consciousness decreases, and they would feel more relaxed.

Safe to say from both definitions of psychological safety, the concept focuses on the importance of people feeling accepted and respected. But one look at corporations around the world, even respectable and famous ones, one can’t help but to see cracks in the safety walls installed by the leaders in the company for it is easier to preach than to put into practice.


Flip the Burger!


In a recent corporate engagement, our team came up with an interesting conversation starter. We decided to do an activity we call “Flip the Burger” by flipping an otherwise generic question into something triggering to get our participants to come up with a list of ways to make their employees LEAVE the company. Initially, we thought this question would be akin to opening a can of worm. But 5 minutes into the activity, we realized we were not gaining as much input as we expected.

A quick scan in the room revealed that one of the top HR member from HQ was actually in the room. And a few other HR personnel pacing the floor, eager to see what the participants were anxiously trying to hide or not write. At first glance, it seemed like the participants didn’t have a clue what they were supposed to achieve. But a few minutes into the activity, our team noticed the familiar tell-tale sign: Self-censorship.

One or two participants, the younger ones, had some ideas. Probably a little radical. But when the person in the group holding the marker was someone more mature, he or she would have toned the idea down as they wrote it or quietly segued into another point. While it was done in a subtle way, the discomfort in the room could really be felt.

Person holding a burger by Carles Rabada via unsplash.com


NEH! That’s not a part of our culture here.


NEH, Non-existent here. Acronym borrowed from the popular NIH (not invented here), NEH is equally interesting when discussing the fundamentals of psychological safety at work.

How can you tell that an environment is not psychologically safe?

  1. People readily agree with one another because they want to be perceived as nice
  2. Self-censorship occurring too much (as in the Flip The Burger activity)
  3. The rise of the HiPPO (Highest Paid People’s Opinion) in discussions
  4. People know that something is wrong, but nobody is doing anything to fix the problem

HiPPO illustration by Michelle

With the HR function within companies fast becoming a box-ticking function of the company, corporations are fast losing their human touch in order to ensure that the corporate culture stays human. Losing the human touch would mean that the companies are focusing more on the output and results and ignoring the humans involved in the success of the company. In certain industries, a 100% result-oriented culture works. But in most, especially the service industry, it doesn’t.

What is worse than working in an environment whereby everybody knows the boat is sinking but nobody does anything about it because the boat is still making money?


Assumption: High performing teams make less mistakes


Not really!

There was a research done by Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson who first coined the term psychological safety. She studied medical teams in hospitals and initially noticed results showing high performing teams made more errors as compared to teams with lower performance. But Edmondson’s eureka moment came when she realized that the results were as such because good teams don’t make more mistakes, but they report more. And the enabler to the situation was the “climate of openness” whereby team members could openly discuss the problems and challenges faced.

This leads to another observation regarding “reporting vs. not reporting” findings within a group. In February of 2012, an article by Reuters on US companies avoiding reporting cybercrimes led to another article on zdnet that pointed out that reputation was not the only reason why it went unreported. Other reasons that existed were the insufficient knowledge regarding the issue and the lack of resources allocated to finding solutions to the problem.

This thought now leads us to another interesting thought: Teams who do not report mistakes will be perceived as teams that have made fewer mistakes, even though the truth might be far from it. But it works for teams who are actively trying to be perceived as “good”.


Food for Thought


Psychological safety is necessary for people to experience better collaboration. With confidence that one could speak up and share unpopular (but important) information and opinion, the team could benefit more from seeing the shared problem from a different perspective. For organizations, it would mean avoiding the challenge of falling into myopic perspective brought forth by only having “Yes Men” and “Yes Women” provide input.

One might argue that “Not making a decision is the safest decision to make”. But in reality, is it truly the safest decision to make?

Ironically, not making a decision in itself is a decision. Inaction is a decision. Giving no reply is a response.

Developing better psychological safety in workplace is probably going to take some time. But with the right culture and leaders with the right intentions in place, this would not just remain a dream. In the meantime, we might want to continue wearing our  ‘psychological safety hat’ when entering our “Work-in-Progress” workplace until the space becomes safer and conducive for better collaboration.

Updated on the 29th September 2021.
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Michelle Lim

Michelle Lim

Creative Consultant, JCE Japan Creative Enterprise