The Surprising Benefits of Psychological Safety

I will share a scenario that I find myself in more than I would like to admit. I’m at a brainstorming session with a group of teammates. Almost initially, I have an idea. It’s boring, probably won’t work, but I know no one would be outraged if I say it. Then, I start thinking about an idea that might be really great or really terrible. There is something about this potentially awful idea that pulls at my gut, tells me that it worth considering. I raise my hand and after a moment hesitation I mention... the boring idea. 

Groan...

Growing up, I wasn’t a popular kid in school. I was socially awkward, was a bit obsessed with NASA and my family moved often, which usually made me the "New Nerd in School". As an adult, I have a tendency to be concerned about being liked and accepted. There are definitely occasions when I will risk embarrassing myself to others, but often, I’ll skew to the safe choice. It has positive effects, in that I rarely offend or disappoint anyone with my ideas or actions, but sometimes I think that those possibly great/ possibly terrible ideas that I didn’t mention might have been the better idea in the long run.

Psychological safety can be defined as a person’s perception of consequences when taking risks around others. In an environment of low psychological safety, a person may worry that they will be punished, ostracized or embarrassed if they make the wrong suggestion or fail at a task. Conversely, in areas of high psychological safety, people feel confident that they can take risks around their teammates and still be accepted if it falls flat. 

There are several obvious benefits to psychological safety. Teams with high psychological safety are nearly always happier, more creative and more effective as groups. But, I would also like to mention some of the surprising benefits that come from safe groups.

  1. Bad ideas that are good ideas in disguise - How often have you heard the phrase “Okay, this may sound weird, but bear with me here...”?  As a general rule, we are often guided in our choices by many unseen, unnoticed social cues. However, some of the best answers come from those ideas that bump up against those social cues, the ones that cause someone to initially say “you can’t do that”. Often, it only by breaking through a group’s inhibitions that you can forge new ground. 
  2. Bad ideas that are good ideas for other problems in disguise - This is an alternate to the first idea. Perhaps that initial bad idea is just a bad idea for the issue at hand. However, by presenting it and considering it you may determine a possible answer for another problem that either exists now or in the future. 
  3. Humor - Though there is no particular reason why this has to be true, I have found that safe environments are almost always the ones with the most laughter. Groups that have a strong culture of acceptance for new ideas often find themselves in funny and amusing places. 
  4. Humility - Not every idea will be accepted by a group, and not every action will be lauded. To work in a safe environment often means accepting [fair] criticism in order to move forward. The best teammates will stay grounded and realize that not everything they do or say will be considered brilliant. 
  5. Bravery - many people may appear confident but are surprisingly adverse to risking their social standing, regardless of the environment. To risk putting out an idea that you know might be shot down is hard and requires courage. But, like all admirable qualities, it gets easier the more you do it.

Every group is different, and so not every combination of people will show all these qualities. However, leaders that can foster and promote psychological safety within a work environment will support, encourage and inspire their teams to find the best in themselves and the group as a whole.