Written by: Bob Bertsch
Fear can be a powerful demotivator. I have heard accounts of service members who fear that seeking help with food insecurity or financial challenges might negatively impact their careers. Research has shown fear of stigmatization can also deter service members from seeking help for their mental health (Spurgeon, 2004). In a recent OneOp blog post, “Understanding Professional & Institutional Stigma Related to Mental Health,” Dr. Lakshmi Mahadevan offers helpful tips for adopting a proactive self-advocacy approach to stigmatization.
Approaching stigmatization from the individual level can be helpful, but it is just one part of the environment that allows stigmatization to exist. While our teams and organizations are part of that environment, they can also be negatively impacted by fear that makes people hesitant to communicate, collaborate, or speak up about things that need improvement. One way to help people overcome those fears is to increase psychological safety in our organizations.
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety is how the consequences of taking interpersonal risks are perceived. For example, suppose people within an organization feel they risk rejection, reprimand, or other formal and informal consequences for speaking up or taking action. In that case, the level of psychological safety in that organization is low. Psychological safety can be confused with trust, but trust occurs between individuals, while psychological safety is a product of the overall environment.
Why is psychological safety important?
In a recent review of almost a decade’s (2013-2021) worth of psychological safety research, Amy Edmondson and Derrick Bransby found that “psychological safety plays important roles in enabling organizations to learn and perform in dynamic environments,” (2023, p.65). In dynamic environments and when addressing complex issues, collaboration is essential for effective results. Because collaboration depends on candid communication, it’s critical that people feel psychologically safe enough to share their opinions, questions, and concerns. As Edmondson and Bransby note, effective collaboration also depends on leveraging expertise from different areas of expertise. They write, “Spanning expertise boundaries is challenging when people are reluctant to speak up, due to the inherent risk of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, or intrusive” (p.56). Edmonson and Bransby found that research into psychological safety could be organized into four clusters: getting things done, fostering learning behaviors, improving the work experience, and leaders and leadership. Each of these clusters spans the individual, team, and organizational levels of the work environment.
Psychological Safety at the Individual Level
According to Edmondson and Bransby, research into individual performance found psychological safety was a factor in unlocking individuals’ latent potential to achieve goals. For example, psychological safety helps people to reframe demands as challenges and opportunities to explore new ideas (Espedido & Searle 2021).
In their article, “How Psychological Safety Creates Cohesion: A Leader’s Guide,” Maj. Kimberly Brutsche and Capt. Tiarra McDaniel from the U.S. Military Academy’s Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic suggests that individuals can contribute to psychological safety by being self-aware, sharing how they like to communicate and what motivates them, and embracing “honest mistakes as learning opportunities” (2021). They add that it is important to recognize that a psychologically safe environment is not always comfortable. Often the challenges we face can help us grow.
Psychological Safety at the Team Level
Research has indicated psychological safety helps teams overcome barriers to performance like hierarchy, functional diversity, and professional boundaries (Edmondson and Bransby, 2023). In a study of 101 healthcare teams in the United States Veterans Health Administration. True and colleagues (2014) found that psychological safety enabled open communication which allowed team members to interact across hierarchies and professional boundaries.
According to Brutsche and McDaniel, teams can help develop a psychologically safe environment by being aware of each others’ strengths and weaknesses which can foster interdependence. They also encourage team leaders to promote inclusiveness, empower team members to share ideas, and “fervently support” their team members.
Psychological Safety at the Organizational Level
While individuals and teams can help promote a psychologically safe environment, Brutsche and McDaniel clearly state, “the organization is responsible for breaking the stigma that certain resources can harm careers.” They implore leaders of organizations to resist shutting down criticism and reward productive discourse.
To encourage the open communication associated with psychological safety, leaders may make a special effort to solicit feedback from their subordinates, However, Coutifaris & Grant (2021) found that when leaders sought feedback it had no lasting, positive impact on psychological safety. When leaders shared feedback, openly discussing the criticism and suggestions the leaders themselves had received, it had a lasting, positive impact on psychological safety by normalizing the vulnerability which makes reciprocal behavior possible.
Putting It Into Practice
Brutsche and McDaniel offer the following practices to help cultivate psychological safety.
- Own your decisions
- Practice self-awareness
- Be willing to learn and to trust
- Advocate for your team members
- Be accountable for the successes and failures of the team
- Promote inclusiveness and open communication
For Organizational Leaders
- Demonstrate that you value people over processes
- Encourage a growth mindset
- Model vulnerability by accepting criticism and encouraging constructive discourse
Brutsche, K., & McDaniel T. (2021). How Psychological Safety Creates Cohesion: A Leader’s Guide. Army Resilience Community Link. April 2021.
Edmondson, A. C., & Bransby, D. P. (2023). Psychological Safety Comes of Age: Observed Themes in an Established Literature. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 10(1), 55–78. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-120920-055217
Espedido A., & Searle BJ. (2021). Proactivity, stress appraisals, and problem-solving: a cross-level moderated mediation model. Work Stress 35(2):132–52
Mahadevan, L. (2023, December 5). Understanding Professional & Institutional Stigma Related to Mental Health. OneOp. https://oneop.org/2023/12/05/understanding-professional-institutional-stigma-related-to-mental-health/
Spurgeon, D. (2004). Fear of stigma deters US soldiers from seeking help for mental health. BMJ : British Medical Journal, 329(7456), 12.