Updated: May 16, 2021
Last week I've started working on my master thesis in behavioral psychology. During the weeks prior to that I have been trying to figure out what to write about. There are a few topics that interest me and I wanted to pick one that is somewhat related to my previous job since I am still considering returning to consulting, but I also wanted to pick a topic that is future proof.
I've ended up with writing a literature review on psychological safety. According to current studies it is the single most important factor in regards to successful teamwork since it fosters organizational learning and is closely related to trust, work engagement and psychological empowerment. With its wide range of antecedents and outcomes it is also an interesting topic for I-O psychology related research.
I have read a whole bunch of literature reviews and meta analysis on this topic. The one that sums up the history of psychological safety research the best is from Frazier et al's. (2018) meta analysis: "Schein and Bennis (1965) introduced psychological safety as a critical part of the “unfreezing” process required for organizational learning and change. They proposed that psychological safety reduces perceived threats, removes barriers to change, and creates a context which "encourages provisional tries and which tolerates failure without retaliation, renunciation, or guilt". Kahn (1990) suggested that psychological safety was a condition necessary for people to feel attachments to—and engagement in—their work roles. He defined it as “feeling able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career”. More recently, Edmondson (1999) defined psychological safety as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking."
Psychological Safety and Organizational Learning...
One of the key aspects correlated to psychological safety is organizational learning. There seems to be consensus about the importance of organizational learning in our current work environment. Companies and employees need to adapt constantly to meet customer needs and market requirements. The difference between individual learning and organizational learning is that organizational learning is dependent on different people and environmental circumstances whereas individual learning can be done on your own (who would've guessed...). Organizational learning depends on three key factors: speaking up (or voice behavior), cooperation and experimentation (combined with creativity or innovative behavior).
In the "normal" world we'd consider these three things to be typical aspects of "being oneself". We encounter a lot of different and challenging situations that we need to be inventive and creative about. We need people to cooperate with in order to fix problems. And we need to speak up to make sure that we get what we want sometimes. However, we behave quite differently in our work environments. We constantly fear negative consequences to self-image, status or career if we speak our minds, be disruptive or try out new things with the risk of failing.
That's why we need work environments that foster psychological safety. One needs to feel safe to be oneself, speak his or her mind and generate new ideas without risking to lose face or status. Whether it is performance gains, increased learning, engagement, information sharing or improved satisfaction and commitment, all of the above can benefit from this kind of environment.
Fostering Psychological Safety to improve Collaboration...
Studies have shown that less than 50% of employees characterized their work environment as “a psychologically safe and healthy environment to work in” (Ipsos, 2012). Luckily, there is a lot that an organization can do to foster psychological safety.
First of all, it's indicated in current research that psychological safety is impacted by positive leader-member relations. Training sessions for those interested in leadership positions can emphasize the importance of ensuring that subordinates feel safe to challenge the status quo. Though “open door” policies are often touted in the workplace, leaders can be trained in ways to actively pursue being challenged. In addition, training efforts for all employees can focus on teamwork and developing effective relationships as social support was shown to have a positive influence on safety perceptions.
Secondly, from a job design perspective, interdependence was found to have a strong effect on psychological safety. Designing work that requires more interdependence may not be relevant for all work settings, but to the extent that employees must rely on each other to get their jobs done, psychological safety is more likely to develop. Especially employees in cultures with high so-called uncertainty avoidance (i.e. Germany) demonstrate a higher sensitivity to elements of work design and supportive work context rather than to leadership behaviors. However, given our current situation and the tendencies to work remotely, this might be somewhat of a challenge for companies to achieve.
In their literature review from a couple of years ago, Edmondson and Lei sum up the importance a psychologically safe work environment to improve collaboration as follows: "In today’s business environment, much work in organizations is accomplished collaboratively. Narrow expertise and complex work require people to work together across disciplinary and other boundaries to accomplish organizational goals. [...] For people to feel comfortable speaking up with ideas or questions—an essential aspect of organizational learning—without fear of ridicule or punishment, managers must work to create a climate of psychological safety. Otherwise, interpersonal risk is a powerful force that makes effective collaboration less likely to occur, particularly when the work is characterized by uncertainty and complexity."
These are just a first few thoughts and ideas that I've picked up regarding the topic and I will continue to write about it while working on my master thesis. In the upcoming weeks I will focus on speaking-up and/or innovative behavior, so stay tuned!