What is psychological safety?

 In Culture, Leadership

An operating system that’s made for diversity

When we enter a social situation or group, we adopt the ‘operating system’ that attaches to the group. Think of it as a computer. A computer needs an operating system so it knows how to work and organise itself. Our social operating systems are the unwritten rules and expected behaviours that we need to conform to in order to work within a particular group. 

Social operating systems help us navigate the world efficiently. When we step into a church, we don’t need to be told to be respectful and lower our voices, our operating system or guidebook prompts us. And when it comes to the workplace, the same prompting for behaviour applies.  

Now, our workplace has had a reboot over the past 20 years as a result of our advancing technology. And this has created quite a cultural shift in a short space of time. Workplace culture has changed, from the boss telling people what to do to a model where teams work together. In fact, we collaborate in teams 50 per cent more than we did 20 years ago. 

The workplaces which embrace this new system see greater diversity and inclusion, and these, in turn, mean more ideas and better ways of working. Positive outcomes all round. 

What teams do

When we talk about teams, we are talking about a group who work together on an equal basis to solve problems. They don’t operate on a ‘following orders’ system but combine their innovative thinking to find new solutions to complex problems. This is the magic that diversity and inclusion delivers. It is quite a different operating system from the original; it gives teams new freedom over their own work. 

The new operating system creates a culture where teams get to: 

What Teams Do

  1. Plan the work:

    Empowered teams are able to organise and plan their own work. They decide together what they work on next and what can wait. This means they are freed from lengthy status reports and cycles that slow them down. 

  2. Solve problems:

    Empowered teams feel safe to experiment. Finding out that something isn’t working, is part of the problem-solving, where people can learn from mistakes and build on them. Failure is now a thing to celebrate rather than a verbal warning. 

  3. Make quick decisions:

    Empowered teams make the decisions they need, which means they feel safe to pull the plug if something isn’t working and can decide for themselves which direction to take next.  

  4. Review progress constantly:

    In order to keep learning, empowered teams feel safe to review and give constructive feedback. This means they know what is and isn’t working. They can stop a piece of work before time is wasted; they get to the answer more quickly.


What’s key here is that the team feels safe to work TOGETHER. That is the operating system shift. 

The Shift

Vertical Leadership

The old vertical model, looking to the boss for all the answers, was based on social norms of conforming, waiting for instructions, and fitting into an organisational mould of one way of doing things. 

This way was fine when work was about production, and getting a specific job done in a specific way. Bosses indeed could have all the answers. But now we have questions that can’t be answered in a specific way.





Questions like: 

  • How are we going to do what we do now, but in a more sustainable way?
  • How can we innovate and stay ahead?
  • In what way can we use AI?

These are questions with no pre-written answer. We simply don’t know. 

This is when you need the power of many brains. Step forward empowered teams, powered by a horizontal operating system that thrives on diversity and the different ways of thinking that brings. 

To get to the place where you have empowered teams people need to adjust their work culture. They need to know it’s okay to behave differently and to speak up when they have an idea different from the customary norm. 


However, this doesn’t stop with the team members. You need to make it just as OK for the boss to say they don’t know the answer as you do for the employee to say they do know it. 

In many ways, the boss’s job is not to step forward as before but instead to create the conditions where they step back and empower others to lead. Do not underestimate how tough it is to introduce a new culture into an organisation. People need help to reset. 

Now let us introduce you to psychological safety, an operating system made for empowered teams. 

What is psychological safety

Psychological safety is the condition you get when a team has a culture where it feels comfortable and safe to share ideas, mistakes, weaknesses and anxieties, and to critique.

It shifts teams from a conformist view to a new one of empowerment. It changes the leader’s role from having all the answers to empowering others to work together in a way that all voices and ideas are heard. Furthermore, it lets the leader get down from their superhero perch and create a different vibe in teams, and that has huge benefits for all.  

Research into psychological safety finds it is the key differentiator for teams; Amy Edmundson’s work has been at the forefront of the thinking and her TEDx talk is a great place to start. Such thinking has been further supported by Project Aristotle at Google, which found psychological safety to be the determining factor of great teams.  It’s about creating an environment where people feel ok to take those personal risks and to speak up. 

What are the benefits of psychological safety? 

When psychological safety is high, day-to-day work and behaviours lead to seeking feedback, reporting mistakes, and frequently proposing new ideas with the understanding that if someone puts themselves on the line, others will respond positively. You see things like this: 

  • Higher motivation and employee engagement
  • Employees open-minded to new ideas
  • Increased creativity and more diversity of thought
  • People who are happy to speak up and put forward ideas
  • Behaviours of seeking feedback, giving feedback and reporting mistakes
  • Resilience and less fear of making mistakes.

And when it’s not there 

When psychological safety is low, employees and teams will be less open to expressing new ideas, feel less responsible and also potentially suffer from increased levels of anxiety.  Symptoms of an unsafe operating system are: 

  • An organisation closed to new ideas
  • A lack of innovation and loss of creativity
  • Avoidance of risks or speaking up
  • Preference for adherence to instructions
  • Higher levels of turnover
  • Difficulty in giving and receiving feedback well.

For innovation, creativity, teamwork do you really want anything other than psychological safety?

How to help teams create psychological safety 

Here are our five steps to get a team started on the road to creating a psychologically safe workplace:

  1. Start the conversation.

    Let your team know why change is needed. In doing so you make it okay to not have all the answers. This frees bosses from the old operating systems and lets people talk about what happens. People make sense of their world by talking about it. You can do this through a series of conversation-based sessions.

  2. Then determine where you are.

    By measuring it.  People respond to metrics. A score gives you data on where to invest your time, thereby delivering a better ROI. Our Team Chemistry tool can help with that by measuring not only Psychological Safety but also team wellbeing, readiness for change and emotional connect. These are the four things that we know help create great teams.what is psychological safety

  3. Decide where you want to be.

    Once you have the language and know where you are now, you can decide what operating system you want for the future. This has two levels – a broad organisational culture and a team level culture. Psychological safety differs across teams, so you need to work on this team-by-team. Talk about what needs to change and how to achieve this goal. Then work on a plan together to take the first few steps. 

  4. Introduce small new practices.

    That work for you. This may be new meeting structures, new decision making, or teaching people how to give feedback well. The practices you start with will have been determined through an informed process of awareness building and team decision making on where to make a start. You are now approaching behaviour change using an empowered team style, your team-based operating system. 

  5. Keep noticing, learning and improving.

    Build time to review progress. Teams, when given the right way of looking at a challenge, are the best people to know what to do next. Learn from what they see working and not. 

Above all, you need to start this small. Too many change programmes have tried to drop a massive Change boulder onto the organisation. Large scale actions mean we’re now suffering from Change Fatigue. Instead, do the work to prioritise new desired behaviours based on what is achievable and realistic. Then start with the easy ones. 

If you would like to have a no-strings-attached discussion with us about your own team and how we can help, or to find out more about our Team Chemistry tool, then drop us an email at Talk@MakingChangeHappen.co.uk. Or take a look at our Psychological Safety page to ponder it a bit more.

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