This article was originally published on LinkedIn by Alex Glassey and titled, "Psychological Safety Is A Fundamental Management Concept." It is republished here with permission. As a very comprehensive article, it was quite long in its original form, so we have broken it into two parts. You are reading part 1, and you can read part 2 (on measurement) here.
Psychological safety gives senior leaders new, actionable insights into staff productivity that significantly improve their organisation’s financial performance.
A fundamental management concept helps leaders achieve their organisation’s strategic goals. Its insights are used to quantify and prioritise risks and opportunities. It leads to better utilisation of key resources. It recommends actions that move an organisation forward. In short, it supports strategic decision-making.
The concept of psychological safety evolved from a century of research into the human dynamics of workplace performance. It identifies the core biological driver of human behaviour. It understands that we operate in a social context: we yearn to belong; we fear social rejection; our actions reflect this.
Psychological safety is a key driver of employee behaviour. When measured appropriately, it correlates with an organisation’s KPIs. This measurement integrates seamlessly with traditional management tools such as internal benchmarking where it helps managers identify and prioritise risks and opportunities.
Psychological safety provides new and deep insights into workplace performance. It is a fundamental management concept that helps to align staff and leaders in the shared pursuit of the organisation’s purpose and potential.
Psychological Safety Introduced
In the 20th century, management learned how to unlock much of the potential productivity of their employees by paying attention to training, equipment, procedures, remuneration and working conditions. Even so, productivity varied from day to day, from worker to worker, from team to team. These variances highlighted a significant productivity gap that management was unable to consistently close.
Good managers sensed that the gap was related to human dynamics. They believed that traditional tools – training and equipment and the like – dealt only with factors outside an employee. They felt that other factors inside the employee must also play a role.
Researchers developed a variety of approaches and tools to understand these inside factors. They looked at individual traits like behaviour, personality and cognition. They considered motivational factors such as engagement, culture, resilience and leadership. None provided a complete picture or delivered consistently effective results.
In 1999, the concept of psychological safety was rediscovered.
Psychological safety is a biologically-rooted survival sense that people feel when they’re in a group. It assesses what happens between people.
Psychological safety encourages or inhibits how comfortable a person feels to speak up and participate in a group. This feeling significantly impacts workplace productivity. Google released the results of an extensive study in 2016 in which they found that “psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.”(1)
Our client work builds on Google’s findings. Conductor is a software platform used by senior leaders to measure psychological safety in their organisation and correlate it with their performance metrics. This practical application of psychological safety lets them directly address the productivity gap with actionable steps.
Psychological Safety Is Deeply Rooted
Psychological safety evolved as a survival mechanism half a million years ago. Homo sapiens was vulnerable to other animals that were larger, stronger and faster. Evolution observed that people in groups survived and people without a group didn’t.
Because survival depended on belonging to a group, the subconscious brain learned to continuously scan the social landscape. It evaluated five dimensions—status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness(2)—to get a feel for the quality of the social connection.
A positive evaluation brought a greater sense of belonging; the brain relaxed and felt more comfortable communicating and collaborating with others. A negative evaluation signalled the risk of social exclusion and prompted fear. The brain triggered a fight/flight/freeze response exactly as if it were facing imminent physical danger. Communication and collaboration became impaired as the brain focused on individual survival.
Psychological Safety Is Alive and Well Today
Few of us face the environmental threats of half a million years ago. But our brains continue to ceaselessly scan the social horizon for threats. They continue to drive our emotions and, through them, our behaviour. For example, we actively avoid embarrassment and shame. Jealousy and unfairness frustrate or enrage us. We seek out situations where we can feel pride and loyalty.
We bring our brains to the workplace where we are placed in groups and asked to communicate, collaborate and create. Those of us who feel psychologically safe enthusiastically share the best of ourselves. Those of us who don’t feel safe hold back, fall silent and share the least of ourselves. The productivity gap lives here, between safe and unsafe.
Psychological Safety Is NOT Employee Engagement
Employee engagement is the result of a century of work exploring the productivity gap. It examines the enthusiasm that employees have for their work. Practitioners believe that this enthusiasm can be stimulated and directed toward organisational goals.
Employee engagement is a satisfying idea that struggles. It is freighted with a variety of concepts but lacks consensus and standards. Academic theory conflicts with accepted management practice. Despite some studies that celebrate the link between engagement and financial performance, using engagement to achieve performance improvements in individual organisations is unreliable.
The work on engagement, however, paved the way for psychological safety. While engagement measures employee enthusiasm, psychological safety measures the factors underlying this enthusiasm. Psychological safety, a lead indicator, predicts engagement, a lag indicator. Psychological safety is where employee engagement begins.
Psychological Safety Is Shared By Team Members
Psychological safety is experienced by an individual in a group. But it also spreads to other individuals in the group through emotional contagion.
Imagine a meeting. One of your colleagues offers a suggestion that receives a sarcastic reply. Your colleague feels embarrassed and is unlikely to offer further suggestions. You and the others in the room feel this embarrassment too, and you also become less likely to contribute voluntarily.
Imagine, though, that your colleague’s suggestion was met with encouragement. The emotional state—the psychological safety—of the room would be warmer, and you would be more likely to make suggestions of your own.
Psychological safety implicitly acknowledges interpersonal connectedness. It understands that the human experience is inextricably linked to social settings, for better or worse. This differs from other approaches to workplace performance that focus only on the individual.
Psychological Safety Is Measurable
Two surveys measure psychological safety. The first is a seven-statement survey developed by Dr. Amy Edmondson, a Harvard researcher. The second is a 25-statement survey called the PS25™ designed in 2017 by Linda Ray and Karren Jensen at NeuroCapability.
Of the two, the PS25™ is more comprehensive. In addition, the PS25™ measures how an employee’s sense of psychological safety is influenced by their immediate supervisor.
The Conductor platform sends out the PS25™ survey to participants who take an average of three minutes and forty seconds to complete it. Responses are scored between 0 and 100.
Conductor lets managers view psychological safety (the PS25™ results) from a variety of perspectives. Results can be grouped by any combination of organisation structure, functional area or demographic such as region, team, title or gender.
The PS25™ is sensitive to small changes in psychological safety. It can be administered again after only three or four months to check progress.
This is Part 1 of the original article. Click this link to read Part 2 and understand more about measurement. About the Author Alex Glassey is co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Conductor Software. He helps senior management integrate their people and productivity strategies. He is based in Victoria, Canada.
About Conductor Software ConductorSoftware.com is a self-serve SaaS platform that brings psychological safety and bottom-line performance together. We use Conductor to measure psychological safety, perform internal benchmarking using your KPIs, and link them so the best possible decisions can be made.