Psychological Safety by Amy Admondson: definition and importance (part 1)

What does Psychological Safety mean? Why is it important in an organization or a workplace? Really, why does Psychological Safety matter so much?

Google Aristotle Project

In 2012, the Google conducted a study initiative, the Project Aristotle, over 180 teams. This was to understand why some where quite successful and some other not. As a result, Google found 5 key properties for success. Furthermore, the single most important one was psychological Safety. Indeed, the team members should feel psychologically safe, for the other properties to have an impact. Truly, psychologically Safety is the foundation one.

5 key dynamics that set successful teams apart:
Psychological Safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?
Julia Rozovsky “The five keys to a successful Google team.” re:Work Blog.

Interpersonal risk management

Each of us is born with two contradictory sets of instructions: a conservative tendency, made up of instincts for self-preservation, self-aggrandizement, and saving energy, and an expansive tendency made up of instincts for exploring, for enjoying novelty and risk—the curiosity that leads to creativity belongs to this set.
Mihaly Csikszentmihaly

In the work environment, people continuously manage interpersonal risk. Indeed, they keep limiting how open they are when sharing ideas, concerns and questions. Most of the time, it is not even a conscious behavior.

– Don’t want to look ignorant? Then, don’t ask questions.
– Don’t want to look incompetent? Then, don’t admit to mistakes or weaknesses.
– Don’t want to be called disruptive? Then, don’t make suggestions.
The Fearless Organization – Amy C. Edmondson

The most common reason for people to remain silent are the fear of damaging a professional relationship and the concern that other may see them negatively. Furthermore, this censorship impacts not only, threatening or embarrassing content but also ideas for improvement. In summary, people prefer to be safe than to be sorry.

Silence always wins

When we compare speaking up with remaining silent, then silent always wins. Surely, this is the voice-silence asymmetry. Indeed, people are confident they are safe when silent but are not confident that their voice will make a difference. In other words, “no one was ever fired for silence.”

Voice versus Silence

The organization and / or the customer benefit the voice. But this benefit is delayed and uncertain. On the contrary, oneself benefits the silence. And the benefit is immediate and certain.

Implicit rules at work when not to speak

  • Don’t challenge something your boss have contribute to, as he or she may feel personal ownership and may be offended.
  • Don’t speak if you have under-developed, under-researched idea. In addition, when you question others’ ideas you better have facts.
  • In some organization, people don’t even speak up when their boss is present. Especially if it is negative. Indeed, this would be considered as undermining and insubordinate.
  • Speaking up on some topics where there is a lot at stake may have career consequences.

The Danger of culture of silence

A culture of silence combine two things. Firstly, this kind of culture inhibits people to speak up. Secondly, people fail to listen those who brave the first barrier. All the more so that the speaker brings bad news.

Consequences can be huge. Even a matter of life and death, for customers or workers. Indeed, safety starts with encouraging workers to speak up about hazards. Surely, clear, direct, candid communication is essential to reduce accidents.

Fear as motivator

Management used fear to motivate assembly line workers on factory or farm. But those jobs were about repetitive tasks and they rewarded individual speed and accuracy. Yet, some managers still think that fear can motivate. Indeed, they think that feared people work hard to avoid bad consequences of under-performing.

On the contrary to repetitive jobs, knowledge workers need learning and collaboration to succeed. Without a doubt, not only fear is not an effective motivator in this area but it is even an inhibitor.

No passion so effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.
Edmund Burke

Neuroscience has widely demonstrated that fear inhibits learning and cooperation. In other words, fear burns physiologic resources. They divert them from the parts of the brain that manage working memory and process new information. As a result, this weakens analytic thinking, problem solving and creativity. As a matter of fact, when people are afraid, they shut down, self-censor and refocus on risk management, pain avoidance and self-preservation.

Truly, Agile Leaders must drive the fear out of the organization to create the conditions for collaboration, learning and innovation.

What Psychological Safety is and is not

What Psychological Safety means

Psychological Safety is a term that was coined in 1990 by the psychologist William Kahn. It is a blend of trust and respect. Psychological Safety is an ambiance where people feel safe enough to overcome interpersonal risks. So, they can speak up and share concerns, questions or ideas. Furthermore, each group tends to have an interpersonal ambiance. As as a result, Psychological Safety emerges as a property of a group.

And what Psychological Safety is not

  • Being nice all the time. Indeed, it does not mean that people always agree with one another just to be nice.
  • A question of personality. Clearly, it is not just a question of being extrovert.
  • The same as Trust even if both are connected. To illustrate, Psychological Safety is at group level and Trust is between two persons or parties.

Psychological Safety and performance standards

An important point to clarify. Psychological Safety is not about lowering performance standards. In fact, Psychological Safety and performance standards are two different dimensions. They have the same importance to impact team and organizational performance in a complex and uncertain work environment. Surely, Psychological Safety has to come with discipline to reach efficiency. And when there is uncertainty and / or interdependence, high performance standards alone are not sufficient.

Psychological Safety is just a first step

As we have seen with the results of the Google Aristotle Project, there are 5 properties for a team to be successful. Even if, the Psychological Safety is the most important, the other still count. To illustrate, it takes the brakes off to unleash people potential. But it’s not the fuel that powers the engine.

In other words, The Agile Leader should first build Psychological Safety to enable learning, collaboration and innovation but also to prevent errors. Then, he or she should define high performance standards. At last the Agile Leader should inspire and enable people to reach them.

Why Psychological Safety is important and matters so much in organization and workplace

Why Psychological Safety matters and is important in an organization and a workplace? Psychological Safety creates and improves: Engagement, Collaboration, Learning, Quality, Performance and Innovation.

Engagement and collaboration for performance and innovation

Psychological Safety is essential in a VUCA environment to generate engagement and collaboration, and as a result performance and innovation. When people don’t speak up, the organization looses its capacity to innovate and grow.


Real learning comes about when the competitive spirit has ceased.
Jiddu Krishnamurti

Learning is based either on formal assets and from the team and the field. Moreover, learning the know-how especially relies on the team. Therefore, without Psychological Safety, there is no shared knowledge, no suggestion, then no learning.


Routine and predictable work is declining. Indeed, people need more and more communication and collaboration to cope with uncertainty and complexity. In addition, they need to improve in identifying and solving problems. Therefore, voice has become critical. All the more so, that the faster you identify shortcomings, the smaller the impact.


Workaround are an illustration of the lack of Psychological Safety. Surely, they happen when people do not feel safe enough to speak up and make suggestions for improvement. In addition, workarounds may create additional risks or problems in other areas. At last, they may delay or prevent improvement.


Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.
Mahatma Gandhi

Psychological Safety makes it possible to manage and even takes advantage of the diversity. At first, it helps to overcome the challenge of geographic dispersion.

But there is much more here: diversity in composition usually leads to diversity in thought. And this diversity is the raw material that results in innovation. Indeed, diversity comes with diverse views and perspectives that promote better decision-making and foster innovation.

Innovation is about making new connections. And thanks to diversity, the team will be able to make new and non-obvious connections. But conflicts may arise if there is no Psychological Safety. If you have too much “social friction”, then you will loose the benefits of the “brain friction”.

To put it differently, Psychological Safety may be the key factor that could enable or disable a team to leverage its diversity and its different perspectives.

Cross organization collaboration

At last, Psychological Safety is also useful to overcome the barriers across different organizations, disciplines or geographies.

What’s next? Learn more about Psychological Safety, Agile Leadership and Coaching

Do you want to learn more about Psychological Safety? Here are some valuable references

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