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The secret of psychological safety lies within.

The secret of psychological safety lies within, and it needs something else to make it sustainable and truly effective.

There has been much written about psychological safety since the phrase was first coined by psychologist Carl Rogers decades ago. Popularised by Amy Edmondson in her research on learning in 1999, and gaining further notoriety in 2014 following Google’s Project Aristotle, both identified the presence of psychological safety in successful teams and lack thereof in unsuccessful teams. Although, I’m sure Marcus Aurelius knew a thing or two about it; he did not quash feedback, after all.

“Accustom yourself to give careful attention to what others are saying, and try your best to enter into the mind of the speaker”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VI

Yet, with such awareness in the corporate world, many companies still do not seem to have psychological safety, or they mistake it for the softest comfort blanket of soft skills. Psychological safety does not mean you can say whatever you want, however you want, to whoever you want. It works up, down, and sideways. It is about creating trust and respect, not a feeling that everything’s fine. Being able to challenge, reflect, and review “how we’ve always done it” is vital to growth in even the most successful organisations. This ‘comfort blanket’ view of psychological safety means that organisations can sometimes find themselves stuck in a comfort zone of success but not growth. There is often an important missing ingredient which can keep people sticking to what they know.

Why does the secret to psychological safety lie within?

Ask yourself, under what conditions do you perform at your best? For most of us, it is when we feel a sense of agency and support. When we mean something, and what we do matters. Everyone is an individual but not many individuals perform at their best in an environment where they do not wish to speak up for fear of ridicule or chastisement. Healthy debate and feedback is needed to progress; without it becoming personal. A little pressure can be a good thing but constant pressure with no let-up can lead to poor performance and poor health. Surely leaders want their teams to perform well and would therefore seek to create the conditions for such performance?

Meaning and mattering

In a past life, I had the privilege to run the Command and Tactics Wing for the British Army Air Corps. At the time we were busy preparing frontline units for deployment on operations. At my disposal was a multifunction adaptable simulator, which the training squadrons would use to ‘fly’ the 2-crew Apache attack helicopter (taking 8 stations for 4 aircraft). My team would role-play various other agencies and supporting departments, as well as providing a suitable enemy. The aim and result were to provide a truly immersive experience, in a safe place.

The simulator provided us with a full playback facility of all of the action. We were able to show, on multiple large screens, exactly what was happening inside the cockpits, outside the cockpits, from the enemy point of view, as a plan view of all assets, the effect of enemy and friendly surveillance and weapon systems, as well as listen to all radio communications. It is pretty daunting to know that everything you do can be played back. When flying a route to a fire position, how many times were you exposed to enemy radar? The simulator will show you.

Before the first mission, I would introduce the process and the capability of our simulator system. I would openly encourage experiment, and position undesired outcomes as learning opportunities. I would remind the crews of their capability and the effort they have put into getting here. I would encourage them to make a decision. Do something and we can learn from the action. Doing nothing is not really an option on a battlefield. 

During rehearsals (we would walk through each mission before ‘flying’ it) anyone could speak up, ask for clarity and suggest options without fear of repercussions. However, during the after-action review, it was my duty and that of my team to point out the undesired outcomes and suggest different actions. Although it can be tough to receive this kind of feedback, it is absolutely crucial. I had returned from the theatre of operations that they were going to, and our simulator was the place to learn, not there. After the realisation of the first mission’s playback, subsequent missions always showed rapid progression. Everyone took ownership of their actions, took ownership of their own understanding and supported each other. Under the leadership of some excellent squadron commanders and senior non-commissioned officers the units thrived with the uncertainty and confusion my team often created. 

The additional ingredient

What does any of this have to do with psychological safety? Well, everything. We collectively make the most improvement when everyone has a voice and when failure is seen as a learning opportunity. At the same time, the additional factor for true high performance is accountability. What actions will I do in the future to improve the outcome? Psychological safety without accountability can create a pleasant enough environment, but it can quickly lead to frustration and apathy if everything seems fine but progress isn’t made.

Solution: A JUST High-Performance Culture

A potential solution to create that perfect balance of psychological safety and accountability is the JUST High-Performance Culture. This involves no blame, and a drive for improvement through deliberate action and discipline. Eliminating relationship conflict whilst maintaining task conflict for creativity. 

Some of the steps involved in creating a JUST High-Performance Culture:

  • Establish the Ground Truth 
  • Demonstrate the behaviours you wish to see and praise such behaviours in others
  • Share your story and values
  • Encourage others to share and experiment to learn and improve
  • Champion the intent not just the results
  • Welcome every new member of the team and share the culture
  • Ensure accountability
  • Reflect and review
  • Make time for recovery and fun

As a final thought. It is your friend that points out you have spinach on your teeth. It is your friend that points out where your actions could lead to being shot down. It is the psychologically safe, accountable and wise person that asks-could my actions lead to being shot down, and do I have spinach on my teeth?

References:

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative science quarterly44(2), 350-383.

Grant, A. (2023). Think again: The power of knowing what you don’t know. Penguin.

Kellerman, G. R., & Seligman, M. E. (2023). Tomorrowmind: Thriving at Work with Resilience, Creativity, and Connection—Now and in an Uncertain Future. Simon and Schuster.

Wrzesniewski, A., McCauley, C., Rozin, P., & Schwartz, B. (1997). Jobs, careers, and callings: People’s relations to their work. Journal of research in personality31(1).

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