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Psychological Safety

| March 5, 2024

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jim Bruce, Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.  Jim may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

I remember clearly, times when I was a young child in the late 1930’s, living in the small East Texas town of Shephard, when my mother would loudly say to me “James Donald, don’t you do that!”  Not exactly a good start for a “safe” interaction for either of us.  Yet, a good example of an early situation where I likely did not feel psychologically safe.

The concept of psychological safety originated in the doctoral research of Amy Edmondson at the Harvard Business School.  (She is now the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management there.)   Edmondson began her research by focusing on the relationship between errors made and teamwork in hospitals.   Edmondson expected to find that more effective teams made fewer errors.   What she found was that teams reporting better teamwork had more errors.  Studying the data more deeply, she came to believe that better teams were more willing to report their errors because they felt safe to do so.   This led to the initial conceptualization of “psychological safety.”  [1]

The concept of psychological safety is quite simple. It means that you feel safe to take risks, to speak up, to disagree openly, and to raise any concerns you have, all without fear of any negative consequences, such as pressure from teammates to “go along” and downplay the bad news.

“Psychological safety nurtures an environment where people feel encouraged to share creative ideas without fear of personal judgment or stepping on toes.  In this environment, it feels safe to share feedback with others, including negative upward feedback to leaders about where improvements or changes are needed.  It’s OK to admit mistakes, to be vulnerable, and to speak truth to power.  When psychological safety is present in the workplace or at home, it creates a more innovative, stronger community.” [2]

So, the obvious question is how does one go about building such a team environment?  Marian Evans of the Forbes Business Council responds to this with these questions about the characteristics of the team in question:

  • Is there tolerance for mistakes?
  • Is risk-taking or experimentation encouraged?
  • Are everyone’s options equal?
  • Can questions be asked?
  • Can team members be vulnerable?
  • Is knowledge openly shared?

Evans notes that regardless of who’s on the team these simple steps done well can have a significant and lasting impact on a team’s performance.  [4]

In 2012 Google launched a project, Project Aristotle [5], to investigate what makes some teams successful while others flounder.   As the study’s research proceeded, they kept encountering references to “group norms,” “traditions,” behavioral standards, and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather.   These norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged.   Their influence is often profound.

As the team’s work progressed, they discovered that teams that did well on one assignment usually did well on others.  And, teams that failed on one thing tended to fail on everything.   After many assignments, the researchers concluded that how teammates treated each other determined whether a team was successful or failed in its task.  The right team norms led to success; the wrong ones led to failure.  As the teams were studied further, the “good” teams all had a high “average social sensitivity” – that is, they recognized how others felt by the tone of their voice, their expressions, and other non-verbal cues.

What about the team(s) you are on?  How do you treat each other?  Do you feel psychologically safe?  Are you working on making your team better?  If not, you might want to begin now.  A good place to start might be Charles Duhigg’s NYTimes article on Google’s quest to build the perfect team, or Laura Delizonnan’s HBR article on creating psychological safety.

I trust that this will be a great week for you and those who work with you. . . . . jim

Last week we asked how we envision AI impacting our work in the next year:

  • 9% said very significant changes, including staffing impacts
  • 17% said significant changes in how work is done
  • 42% said some changes
  • 18% said minor changes
  • 14% said no notable impacts

Our views of AI’s potential impact are rather varied. It is interesting to juxtapose these responses with those from last May where we asked about how AI was being pursued at that time. The results were similar spread out ranging from 14% who were all-in to 22% who hadn’t looked at it, with various levels of investment in-between. What these results do not show is WHY someone answered the question the way they did. In particular, the degree of agency in whether we are making AI efforts happen at our institutions or if we feel the impacts of AI are being pushed upon us. What can you do to ensure you are intentional and proactive in considering AI and your work?


[1]. What Is Psychological Safety?, Amy Gallo, Harvard Business Review, February 15. 2023.

[2]. What is psychological safety?  McKinsey & Company, July 17, 2023.

[3].  A Guide to Building Psychological Safety on Your Team, Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar.

[4].  Psychology Safety:  Building High-Performing Teams, Marian Evans, Forbes Councils Member.

[5]. Belbin and Project Aristotle – Everything You Need to Know

Other Papers of Potential Interest

Laura Delizonnan, High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety:  Here’s How to Create It, Harvard Business Review, August 24, 2018.

Charles Duhigg, What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team, New York Times Magazine, February 28, 2016.