This is a brief post on the concept of Psychological Safety in groups. The idea is to introduce the concept at a high level & share resources to help you learn more if you're interested.


Of the five key dynamics of effective teams that Google's researchers identified while studying high performing teams, psychological safety was by far the most important. So it makes sense to pay attention to this aspect of your team.

Psychological safety has been one of the most studied enabling conditions in the field of group dynamics. It has been an important discussion area in the field of psychology, behavioural science, leadership, teams, and healthcare. While several experts have conducted & published research & ideas around it, the two names that stand out are Dr. Timothy R. Clark & more recently Amy Edmondson.

Essence of the theory

Timothy Clark defines the term psychological safety as follows:

"Psychological safety is a condition in which human beings feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo – all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalised, or punished in some way."  

Clark created the 4 stages of psychological safety framework which helps us understand how psychological safety is created in social units (including teams). Below are excerpts from how the framework is described:

Stage 1: Inclusion Safety

Inclusion safety satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong. Inclusion safety allows us to gain membership within a social unit and interact with its members without fear of rejection, embarrassment, or punishment. When we create inclusion safety for others, regardless of our differences, we acknowledge our common humanity and reject false theories of superiority and arrogant strains of elitism.

Stage 2: Learner Safety

Learner safety satisfies the basic human need to learn and grow. It allows us to feel safe as we engage in all aspects of the learning process—asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting, and even making mistakes, not if but when we make them. When we sense learner safety, we’re more willing to be vulnerable, take risks, and develop resilience in the learning process.

Stage 3: Contributor Safety

Contributor safety satisfies the basic human need to contribute and make a difference. When contributor safety is present, we feel safe to contribute as a full member of the team, using our skills and abilities to participate in the value-creation process. When we create contributor safety for others, we empower them with autonomy, guidance, and encouragement in exchange for effort and results.

Stage 4: Challenger Safety

Challenger safety satisfies the basic human need to make things better. Challenger safety provides respect and permission to dissent and disagree when we think something needs to change and it’s time to say so. It allows us to overcome the pressure to conform and gives us a license to innovate and be creative.

This is a useful framework to both understand how to create psychological safety and also measure it for your group / team.

Additionally, organisational behaviour scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard first introduced the construct of “team psychological safety” and defined it as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Her work has also been widely used by companies like google to create high performing teams.

Learn more about this

1. Timothy Clark's work

Watch Clark's brief video explaining the 4 stage framework

Read Clark's book

Or read the book summary  

2. Amy Edmondson's work

Building a psychologically safe workplace - Ted Talk

3. Google's research on effective teams & connection with psychological safety

Julia Rozovsky on How to Build a Great Team

Ideas to apply the theory

As a team lead

Self-assess your team's psychological safety using Clark's 4 stage framework . Follow that up with a conversation or survey with your team to gain insights into the team's perspective. Using this data, create some action plans about what you can do to enhance it.

Alternatively, use Edmondson's work to measure your team's psychological safety. To measure a team’s level of psychological safety, Edmondson asked team members how strongly they agreed or disagreed with these statements:

  1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

Use the data to create actions plans to enhance psychological safety on your teams. You can download the manager actions guide from this article to guide your action plans. (The download is available at the bottom of the page in the link.)

As a team member

Consider making psychological safety an important part of your team discussions, especially in retrospectives or reviews of how the team has been doing.

Work with your team lead to see how you can help enhance psychological safety on your team.

Sources: Leader factor , Google re:work

Cover Image Credit: Jr Korpa on Unsplash

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