Psychological safety- the fuel for high performance

by | Oct 17, 2022 | All Blogs

Psychological safety, in my view, is a term that’s often misrepresented.

It has certainly grown to become part of the vernacular of the progressive organisation in 2022, but more and more, I question if it’s used in the right context. With its rather clinical-sounding name, the term seems to have been relegated to the category of Occupational Workplace Health and Safety. It’s no less important under this banner, I should say, however in harnessing the potential that comes from creating psychologically safe environments, the focus shifts from not simply facilitating performance to empowering high performance…and when you start to play in this paddock…the opportunity for an organisation could be limitless.

Phil Jackson, Jose Mourinho, Alex Ferguson and closer to home, Lauren Jackson & John Eales. All sports leaders in their own right, with very different operating styles but all leaders who managed to nail the concept of high performance. When you look closely enough at the teams they led, these leaders also created incredible ‘working environments for their people built from a foundation of trust. And by trust, they created environments in which their players and teammates felt psychologically safe. The results they achieved are throughout our history books, but the simple premise in which they operated is applicable in today’s workplace.


So what is Non-Physical (Psychological) Safety?

According to Alex Glassey (2021), Psychological Safety is the degree to which an individual feels safe to speak up or speak out without fear of being hurt, embarrassed, or criticised in a particular group. This human need for Psychological Safety is hard-wired and deeply rooted in our evolution in relation to the strongest negative human emotion – Fear.

In my line of work, I often talk about it being the leader’s responsibility to cultivate the environment of their people, and that goes to the heart of psychological safety. In psychologically safe work environments, employees know their voices are heard and respected by their peers and superiors. Psychological safety creates healthy work cultures where employees can learn from their mistakes.


Psychological vs Physical Safety

I will let you know that I am a huge advocate and educator around Psychological Safety and its tremendous impact on organisations, teams, team members and customers. Am I a Psychologist – nope. Furthermore, do I have a Masters in Occupational Health and Safety – nope. People do not need either of those qualifications to understand and apply concepts of Psychological or Physical Safety. I have spent over two decades in leadership positions with the latter as a Senior Leader, and have over 5 years of supporting organisations in developing leadership capability and driving better organisational culture.

Over the past few years, I have been working with clients across financial services, food processing, timber manufacturing, construction and government, to name a few. I have been bewildered by the consistency of fear in communicating the word ‘Psychological’ by HR teams and Leaders. “Can we just not use the word Psychological”, and “I’m worried our people will perceive this to be about Mental Illness”. Even Simon Sinek drops the word and replaces it with ‘Trusting Teams’ in his latest book, ‘The Infinite Game’.

In listening to the replies of my clients, I would ask, “well, how are you educating and developing your leaders to the impact of Psychological Safety on your organisation, teams and Customer Growth?”. The standard answer I typically receive is something about the rollout of a Mental Wellbeing Program delivered close to R U Ok? Day via online modules or blanket communications.

Can you imagine today in Australia if an organisation’s only physical safety program was a few online modules and some blanket communication once a quarter? No! Yet over the past 10 years, in particular, our society has significantly improved physical safety at work, yet, non-physical (psychological) injuries caused at work are going in the opposite direction.

People need psychologically safe environments to operate and physiologically safe environments to thrive. It’s important that team members feel a sense of safety to take interpersonal risks without fear of retribution, be it from their leader or their work colleague.

colleagues are celebrating in a positive work environment.
Curating positive and safe environments is based in neuroscience.

The Neuroscience of Phsycological Safety

The human brain’s number one job is to keep us safe. Psychological safety evolved as a survival mechanism half a million years ago in Africa. Humans were vulnerable to other animals that were larger, stronger, faster, and had more effective fangs and claws. Evolution observed that people in groups survived and people without a group didn’t. Because survival depended on belonging to a group, the risk of social exclusion inspired fear. The subconscious brain learned to continuously scan the social landscape along five dimensions and ask these questions in the context of the group it was in:

Curating positive and safe environments is based in neuroscience.

1.Certainty:​ How certain am I of the future?

2.Autonomy:​ How much control do I have over events?

3.Relatedness:​ How secure do I feel in my relationship with others? Do I feel like I belong?

4.Equity:​ How fairly do people treat each other and how fair does the organisation treat people?

5.Significance:​ How important do I feel in the eyes of others? Does my opinion matter around here?

(Alex Glassey, 2021)

Our primitive brain (The Limbic System) oversees determining whether stimulus we receive from our work environment is a threat or not. It cannot tell the difference between a physical or psychological threat. Furthermore, the area of our brain that responds to pain, cannot tell the difference between physical or psychological pain. So, just like we would not demand our people work in physically unsafe environments, organisations should not expect people to work in psychologically unsafe environments.

If people are physically injured at work, it impacts the person, the team, the organisation and eventually the customer. If the environment is deemed physically unsafe, people will leave. Psychologically unsafe work environments have the exact same effect. A person who is a great performer with great potential and fit mentally, emotionally and physically can still decide not fully to engage at work, wake up in the morning and dread going back into that environment and eventually leave.

Given the challenging circumstances organisations currently face in finding great people, onboarding them and retaining them, organisations that foster psychologically safe work environments will have a long-term competitive advantage. Those organisations that are investing in developing their leaders by educating them on how to build environments where people feel like they can speak up about an issue, raise an idea, admit a mistake or be open about challenges they are facing at home will develop a reputation that attracts talent.


Why is this such a hot topic now?

Whilst its been around for some time, the term has perhaps been brought to the fore as a result of vast and rapid change brought about by covid, but I dare say it’s here to stay, settling comfortably into a workplace era that looks quite different to the 9-5, clock on, clock off work expectations of days gone by.

In our modern workplace environments, we might argue that the feeling of psychological safety is what helps with a feeling of resilience against a tide of seemingly endless change enabled by technology and the need for organisations to be able to evolve to survive constantly.

It’s been said that workplaces with high levels of psychological safety have less employee turnover than environments with low levels of psychological safety. The real opportunity is when workplaces have both high levels of psychologically safety and high standards.

In a recent HBR article that reviewed the two-year study by Google into this exact topic, it was concluded that ‘the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety, the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. Studies show that psychological safety allows for moderate risk-taking, speaking your mind and creativity, and sticking your neck out without fear of having it cut off — just the types of behaviour that lead to market breakthroughs.

I’m such a believer in the ability of psychological safety to improve culture and drive performance that it’s formed the basis of my own teaching philosophy, which I think serves as a roadmap for organisations working towards a goal of high performance.

Psychologically safe work environments are the fuel for organisational growth

Psychological Safety x Accountability = Long Term Individual, Team, Organisation and Customer Growth

As a leader, you cannot hold someone accountable effectively if the environment that you curate for your team is deemed a threat. It will not work overtime. People will always get to choose who they follow AND discretionary effort is the holy grail. For all those in Leadership roles, if you do not understand Psychological Safety from a team cohesion and performance perspective, I can help.

We need to change the narrative and face the fact that we need to develop leadership capability that provides a deep understanding of psychological safety (as we have with physical safety) and its extraordinary impact on organisational performance and reputation. If organisations truly believe in the power of employee engagement, they must understand the root cause of why a person will ‘engage’ at work – their sense of psychological safety.

And closing out in the words of the great coach Phil Jackson,

‘Good teams become great ones when team members trust each other to surrender the me for we’.
And I believe that comes from building a great psychological environment first where people can thrive.