Psychological Safety at Work: Does Trust Drive Innovation?

Psychological safety refers to the cultural and social dynamics of a team that enable members to feel safe taking risks and being vulnerable around each other. On teams with a high degree of psychological safety, employees work freely without unfair punishment, ridicule, or embarrassment. They value curiosity over blame and learning over shame. 

Recent research conducted over the last few years shows that psychological safety serves as the engine of high-performing teams. It is a key driver of organizational learning, innovation, creativity, resiliency, and, ultimately, effectiveness. 

Without psychological safety, engineering teams resort to fear, shame, and retribution—an environment that leads team members to retreat from conflict, communicate less effectively, and engage less with team efforts to improve the status quo. When engineers do not feel comfortable expressing their views, they face a heightened risk of burnout and their wellbeing suffers. In the long term, poor psychological safety and burnout lead to high turnover, dissatisfaction, and unhealthy employees.

In today’s fast-paced world of software development, engineering organizations that fail to support their most important knowledge workers will struggle in the marketplace against their competitors. They will lose both their customers and best talent to the highest performing, most innovative companies. 

By embracing the principles behind psychological safety, teams and organizations can reach their full potential—experimenting, learning, and building faster and more efficiently.

What is psychological safety?

Many of the modern ideas behind psychological safety emerged from parallel concepts about physical worker safety in the world of manufacturing. 

Between 1950 and 1970, leaders at Toyota introduced the Toyota Production System, a socio-technical system emphasizing both continuous improvement and mutual respect as important contributors to team performance. The company also created the Andon Cord, a mechanism allowing any worker to immediately stop production if they noticed quality or processing problems on the factory floor. 

During the 1990s, Alcoa, an aluminum industrial corporation, quintupled revenue under CEO Paul O’Neill by emphasizing worker safety. At the start of his reign, O’Neill famously proclaimed his intention to “make Alcoa the safest company in America.” By galvanizing deeper inspection of their manufacturing processes, Alcoa created a long-lasting culture of improvement and transformation.  

Today manufacturing employs less than 10% of the U.S. workforce, but many of the same principles of worker safety have been carried over to the technology industry. With the growth of knowledge work in the last few decades, researchers have recently begun to focus on psychological safety, rather than physical safety, as the key driver of team effectiveness. 

In 2012, Google embarked on Project Aristotle, a research project to uncover the secrets of high performing teams. After analyzing 180 teams over two years at Google, researchers discovered that psychological safety—not team members' tenure, seniority, or extraversion—is the team trait most highly associated with strong performance. 

According to organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.

Google, in its research on psychological safety, provides a more expansive definition: 

Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

The goal of psychological safety is to overcome natural tendencies to exclude, punish, or marginalize other team members. When individuals face a perceived threat at work, they often attempt to reestablish fairness within their group—an instinctive reflex rooted in primitive fight or flight responses. For example, an individual may unfairly reject a team member’s idea simply because that team member previously disagreed with one of their ideas in another meeting. 

Such unsafe conditions create a domino effect, passing frustration and stress from one team to another. If engineers feel they have been unfairly blamed for a recent outage, they’re more likely to reassert fairness by shaming the team they hold responsible, making fewer changes to the codebase to avoid conflict, and deflecting criticism to others in the future. 

On the contrary, psychological safety seeks to prioritize curiosity and learning over blame and shame. It is known as an “enabling mechanism” because it fosters positive group dynamics and team learning.  

Psychological safety, however, does not require team members to always agree with or coddle their teammates. Instead, it requires them to embrace and manage conflicts or disagreements in a respectful, inclusive, and constructive manner. By creating a culture of psychological safety, teams ensure everyone leaves each conversation feeling they achieved something meaningful for their team as a whole.

Stages of psychological safety

Psychological safety is not a binary outcome; instead, teams fall somewhere on a spectrum of safety. Each step meets different individual needs on the path to creating a truly psychologically safe workplace. 

According to Dr. Timothy Clark, founder and CEO of a global leadership consulting and training organization known as LeaderFactor, the four requirements are inclusion, learner, contributor, and challenger safety.

Stage 1: Inclusion safety. Team members feel included on a team and accepted for their true self. They have a shared identity with their team members. Inclusion safety satisfies the need to connect and belong. 

Stage 2: Learner safety. Team members feel safe to ask questions, experiment, and make mistakes. They give and receive fair feedback without fear of embarrassment. Learner safety satisfies the need to learn and grow. 

Stage 3: Contributor safety. Team members feel safe to contribute. They feel empowered to use their skills and talents to create value for their team. Contributor safety satisfies the need to make a difference and have an impact. 

Stage 4: Challenger safety. Team members feel safe to challenge the status quo. They embrace candor and honesty when discussing things that need to change without fear of retribution. Challenger safety satisfies the need to make things better. 

How does psychological safety impact performance and innovation?

Psychological safety is considered the engine of team performance. Teams with better psychological safety benefit from: 

  • Enhanced creativity: Teams encourage solution-finding and divergent thinking, which are both critical for creative work. 
  • Increased open-mindedness: Team members embrace and explore new ideas. They are more willing to acknowledge potential weaknesses, take risks, and experiment. 
  • Increased resiliency: Teams bounce back faster and learn from failure when they feel safe to raise issues with other individuals and find solutions. 
  • Higher engagement: Team members are more engaged with their work, driving organizational effectiveness. 
  • Faster learning: Teams enjoy experimenting with new ideas, allowing teams to test and debate more ideas. They are more likely to share those learnings across the organization as a catalyst for other teams to experiment. 
  • Improved knowledge sharing: Learnings from failures are shared throughout an organization, transforming individual and team learning into organizational learning. 

Collectively, the positive outcomes of psychological safety improve how well companies innovate by increasing the rate of change and decreasing time to market. In other words, psychological safety helps teams surface more ideas faster and implement them more rapidly. 

Psychological safety, however, is not a silver bullet for organizational performance. It must be combined with other ‘fuels’ of performance—powerful developer tools, a world-class developer experience, effective communication, long-term investments in team growth, and so on. 

In particular, psychological safety works best when paired with team accountability. On teams with high psychological safety and high accountability, individuals understand what is expected of their team and have the safety to meet those expectations. 

Psychological safety and accountability
Adapted from How Psychological Safety Affects Team Performance

Teams without psychological safety consistently push team members into fight or flight responses, creating an organization driven by fear rather than collaborative improvement. As a result, teams with low psychological safety suffer from: 

  • Lack of diversity of thought: When team members fear sharing new ideas, teams tend to defer to the most popular or least divisive ideas. They attract like-minded individuals who prefer to uphold the status quo. 
  • Unequipped to prevent failure: Teams do not have the communication habits needed to raise potential issues before they cause damage. They do not share learnings from past mistakes and are more likely to repeat those mistakes. 
  • Knowledge silos: Individual or team learning is never translated into organizational learning when people cannot freely share their findings. 
  • Indifference and disengagement: Individuals take a defensive stance by retreating from disagreements and protecting themselves against future conflict.

Despite the importance of psychological safety to innovation, most employees work at companies without psychologically safe cultures. Only 47% of employees across the world describe their workplaces as psychologically safe and healthy, according to a global survey conducted by Ipsos.

Psychological safety prevalence

How to measure psychological safety

Psychological safety is a measurable concept. Similar to other DevOps metrics, such as lead time and change failure rate, it is an important metric that teams should track and improve. To measure psychological safety, teams can use: 

  • Surveys
  • One-on-one feedback
  • DevOps data

Edmonson supported her research with a survey-based approach to measuring psychological safety. Team members score the following statements on a Likert scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree): 

  • When someone makes a mistake in this team, it is often held against him or her.
  • In this team, it is easy to discuss difficult issues and problems.
  • In this team, people are sometimes rejected for being different.
  • It is completely safe to take a risk on this team.
  • It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  • Members of this team value and respect each others' contributions.

To get your final score, subtract your score on question 1 from 8 and subtract your score on question 4 from 8, then add those numbers to your scores from questions 2, 3, and 5. 

A final score of 15 or less means your team is psychologically unsafe, while a score above 30 means your team enjoys a high degree of psychological safety. A score between 15 and 30 indicates room for improvement. 

Managers and engineers can also gauge psychological safety by conducting one on one conversations. During these discussions, leaders should analyze not just the what of their communication, but also the how:  

  • How is my delivery?
  • How is my feedback?
  • How well do I ask questions? 
  • How well do I include everyone in the conversation? 

Teams can also use other DevOps metrics to identify potential issues with psychological safety. Poor psychological safety can create bottlenecks and slowdowns in the development pipeline: 

  • Delivery throughput: Engineers are afraid to make changes to the codebase, so they ship fewer features. 
  • Mean time to recovery: Teams are afraid of being blamed for downtime, so they communicate less during outages. 
  • Change failure rate: Teams do not feel comfortable sharing their learnings from previous failures, so they are more likely to repeat mistakes. 
  • Review time: Teams do not feel comfortable sharing feedback with others, so they avoid code reviews and pair programming. 

Many DevOps metrics can be indicators of communication challenges within an organization. Metrics can be impacted by many other factors—such as automation, testing strategies, tooling, and CI/CD maturity—but it’s important to remember that one of the factors impacting team performance could be non-technical and cultural. 

Tips for driving psychological safety in the workplace

Fostering psychological safety requires teams to overcome imbalances in workplace incentives: members must think more about the positive impact of sharing an idea than the potential negative consequences. 

According to Edmondson, there are three key things leaders can do to fix these imbalances and improve psychological safety: 

  • Frame work as a learning problem, not an execution problem
  • Acknowledge your own fallibility
  • Model curiosity and ask lots of questions

To achieve these goals, teams should: 

  • Establish clear rules of engagement
  • Embrace conflict as a source of innovation
  • Reframe negativity as a learning experience
  • Create space for open communication
  • Measure consistently for long-term improvement
  • Invest in DevOps
  • Consider the context

Establish rules of engagement 

Teams should first focus on creating ground rules and expectations for better and more productive group discussions. A code of conduct can include ideas such as: 

  • Challenge ideas, not people
  • Avoid blame or speculation
  • Take responsibility for the quality of the discussion

Many of these guidelines are designed to help teams be more empathetic in their communication by listening more, praising others, and expressing gratitude when someone shares. By codifying these rules, leaders communicate the importance of psychological safety and empathy as key objectives and expectations for their team.  

Embrace conflict as a source of innovation

A core tenet of psychological safety is that conflict and tension should be viewed as a source of new and better ideas. In a psychologically safe workplace, team members should feel comfortable discussing ideas objectively, disagreeing with others, and building on existing ideas. 

To make conflict productive, leaders should focus on using generative language—structuring questions and discussions to create new ideas rather than destroy them. They should ask open-ended questions, embrace half-finished thoughts, and welcome naive questions as a launchpad for further discussion. 

To ease the pressure on other participants, leaders should introduce opposing viewpoints and facilitate everyone speaking up. They can even deliberately suggest controversial ideas or ask ‘dumb’ questions to jumpstart conversations. 

Most importantly, individuals should seek clarity before criticism. Asking deeper questions often unearths better ideas. 

Reframe negativity as a learning experience

Teams should reinforce a blameless culture that prioritizes learning over shame. Leaders need to establish norms for failure by setting an example for their team. They should admit mistakes, share their failures, and ask for help when faced with a difficult task.

Teams should also seek unity in both their accomplishments and mistakes. Teams celebrate product launches and feature releases, but often neglect to rally as a team around their failures. As with sports teams, people prefer to say “we” when describing victories, but choose to say “they” when talking about defeats. When teams fail, they should celebrate the lessons they have learned as a group and the positive impact it will have on their team in the future. 

Create space for open communication

Consistent communication is key for enabling continuous feedback and improvement between team members. Without channels for open communication, individuals have no clear or sanctioned way to express their opinions and ideas. 

Teams should be deliberate in creating space to improve communication, surface issues faster, and spark discussions between team members. These can be regular one-on-one conversations, happy hours, randomized meetings, and watercooler Slack channels. 

Measure consistently for long-term improvements

To improve team performance, psychological safety must be an explicit and transparent team goal. All team members should understand how well their team is doing and how they can improve; the goal is to remove ambiguity, create a shared understanding of reality, and help surface issues faster. 

When psychological safety is a clear goal, teams emphasize the importance of strong communication as a part of organizational expectations. As a result, psychological safety itself becomes a focus of team learning. In the event of a team failure, self-reflection activities such as retrospectives and post-mortems should analyze both technical challenges and cultural shortcomings around psychological safety. 

Invest in DevOps

To improve psychological safety, teams can adopt DevOps practices that reduce the time to uncover failures, reduce the cost of failures, and amplify the lessons learned from failures. 

It’s important to remember that high-performing teams fail more often than low-performing teams. While the best teams experience lower failure rates, they deliver more software in less time. The result is a greater absolute number of failures; however, teams with high psychological safety recover, learn, and grow from those failures faster, too. 

The key DevOps tactics to improve psychological safety include creating guardrails, improving resiliency, and reducing the stigma of failure. 

Guardrails help teams prevent changes from breaking their systems before they reach production environments. They include practices such as shift-left testing and security, automated CI/CD pipelines, and feature flags or canary releases. They provide engineers with the safety needed to experiment and try new things without fear of serious outages or downtime. Guardrails also reduce anxiety and stress during the development life cycle so teams can code free from fear or toil. 

When considering which guardrails to implement and how to do so, DevOps teams should look to enable innovation by providing “buoys not boundaries,” according to Ralph Loura in The DevOps Handbook: 

Instead of drawing hard boundaries that everyone has to stay within, we put buoys that indicate deep areas of the channel where you’re safe and supported. You can go past the buoys as long as you follow the organizational principles. After all, how are we ever going to see the next innovation that helps us win if we’re not exploring and testing at the edges? As leaders, we need to navigate the channel, mark the channel, and allow people to explore past it.

In addition to guardrails, teams can improve their resilience to help them fix issues quickly when they do occur. Erik Hollnagel defines resiliency engineering as: 

The intrinsic ability of a system to adjust its functioning prior to, during, or following changes and disturbances, so that it can sustain required operations under both expected and unexpected conditions.

Teams can invest in self-healing systems and decoupled architecture to mitigate and contain damage in the event of a failure. With safer failures, teams can reduce stressful deployments and constant firefighting. 

Lastly, teams can reduce the stigma of failure. Even high-performing teams are not able to catch every mistake. In fact, if they did, they wouldn’t be high-performing teams because they would lack valuable feedback loops and learning opportunities. 

To reduce the stigma of failure, teams should view post-mortems and retrospectives as a learning opportunity. Organizations are only able to strengthen their engineering performance when individuals can discuss their challenges openly and without fear of embarrassment. 

Consider the context

Psychological safety does not exist in a vacuum. According to Google’s research, after psychological safety, teams needed four additional team dynamics to be successful:  

  • Dependability: Team completes quality work on time. 
  • Structure and clarity: Teams have clear expectations for their work. 
  • Meaning: Teams have a sense of purpose. 
  • Impact: Individuals feel they are making a difference for their team. 

Leaders should work to create a culture with each of these dimensions to support their team’s psychological safety. 

How to drive psychological safety in a virtual workplace

Psychological safety requires the same communication principles regardless of whether teams are working at the office or working remotely; however, how teams tactically implement psychological safety can look very different depending on their workplace environment. 

Remote calls, for example, are especially challenging for individuals because they tend to restrict conversation to just a few people. Leaders can avoid this problem by relying on breakout rooms, hand-raising, and polls. 

Asynchronous can also be challenging. When working remotely, team members can often feel overlooked in the deluges of Slack messages and Zoom calls. Leaders must make a conscious effort to include others in their discussions and be transparent in their decision making by documenting and sharing the outcomes of important team conversations. 

With the cover of asynchronous communication, individuals may prefer to disengage from their team when facing failure. Instead, leaders should create cultural norms around sharing failures and asking for help. For example, they can share post-mortems in public Slack channels or improve documentation after an outage.

Team-building exercises, coffee chats, and happy hours can also make remote teams more resilient in the long-term. Group events help team members get to know each other as people; when failure does happen, they’re able to talk more freely and openly. 

What to do in a psychologically unsafe workplace as an employee

In the worst case scenario, individuals should consider leaving an organization that fails to provide psychological safety. In the long-term, the lack of psychological safety leads to burnout, unhappiness, and dissatisfaction. 

Most teams, however, start with a solid foundation for psychological safety they can build upon. They already focus on output metrics and objectives—such as features released and revenue targets. Team leaders should make the case for also measuring inputs—like psychological safety—to the development pipeline. Armed with a better understanding of the entire development life cycle, teams can better identify their most serious bottlenecks and constraints. 

Most importantly, leaders and individuals can lead by example. They should express vulnerability, listen intently to their coworkers, and ask deeper questions.