Psychological safety – your decisions will only be as good as the information they are based on.


Do you feel safe right now?

Safe enough to share a new idea?
Safe enough to ask a question about something you don’t understand?
Safe enough to admit a mistake?
Safe enough to challenge someone above you in your organizational hierarchy?

If your answers to these questions are yes, then congratulations, you are in a atmosphere of Psychological safety.

Psychological safety is an essential ingredient in creating speed in any transformation or development process. It is also the key to teaming and collaborative work on complex opportunities and challenges.

 If people don’t share unfiltered information in your conversations, in the meetings you attend, or in the teams you lead then bad decisions will be the consequence. 

A sad thing is that most teams and leaders make sub-par decisions because they don’t establish an atmosphere where people choose to share important information. The result is the stagnation and slow progress that most incumbents are experiencing, and that most scaleups experience once they reach 30-70 employees (often earlier).

The good thing is that it is fairly simple to improve Psychological safety (defined as “the willingness to take interpersonal risk”), and since Psychological safety is low in most teams (and organisations) small improvements quickly result in competitive advantage, improved decision quality and gained speed.

One intervention that I did, centred around Psychological safety and the other Leadership Backbone skills, is described in the Harvard case study “Leading culture change at SEB” written by Professor Amy Edmondson. The effects included improved decision making, cross collaboration, inclusion of new team members and progress on complex strategic topics. This came as no surprise as Psychological safety is very well researched and directly correlated with team performance. However I was impressed that the Leadership Backbone skills could have such impact on a large incumbent multinational bank. I had originally developed the concept when helping management teams at scale-ups to grow their business.

9 out of 10 leaders I meet have misunderstood Psychological Safety. They think it means that there is a pleasant over-all work environment where people are nice to each other. Others think that you have psychological safety as long as people do not feel fearful going to meetings. But that is not what Psychological safety is.

Psychological safety is about performance. Performance in today’s business environment depends on your organisations ability to respond to change. It doesn’t matter if it is a massive change like Covid-19 or a slight change in customer behaviour. If you want to respond effectively you better make sure people dare to ask questions, voice new ideas and concerns, show vulnerability, challenge the status quo and ask for help. All these things are associated with personal risk and uncomfortable feelings, and Psychological safety is an atmosphere where people get over those uncomfortable feelings and share anyway. Your ability to create a Psychologically safe atmosphere will determine how fast, agile and successful your organisation will be. In this HBR article me and Amy Edmondson dives a bit further into this topic: psychological-safety-is-not-hygiene-factor

On the personal level it is a good idea to make sure that you create a safe atmosphere in your personal communication. If people dare to ask you the really tough questions, and share unfiltered information with you then you have a chance to develop in a way that can create long term success. Most leaders are blind to the fact that they are receiving “safe” and filtered information. This can be comfortable in the short run, but without the most important information and the tough questions your development will stagnate. However, If you improve the atmosphere in your personal interactions you may receive better information, make better decisions and improve your long term chance of success.

It is a good skill to work on. In coming posts I will give some tips on how, but you can start right now by reflecting on:
What factors improve my own “willingness to take personal risk” (a definition of Psychological safety) in different settings, and what factors reduce it?
With the insights you gain from this reflection you can most likely start improving your meetings and conversations, and thereby improve your decision making and chances of success.