An Introduction to Psychological Safety

The key to team engagement (includes resource links)

Gary A. DePaul, PhD (he/him/his)

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True Story

Several years ago, I worked for an HR director (I’ll call her Susan) who loved to talk as much as she loved her job. Susan was passionate about solving problems and building interdepartmental relationships. She had a sense of humor and could connect with just about anyone.

Here’s the “but”: When Susan met with managers and employees during monthly team meetings, she did most of the talking. Anyone observing would describe these as 90-minute, one-way conversations.

Susan knew what was going on but didn’t like it. She wanted the team to talk with one another during team meetings instead of her lecturing the group.

Two women talking
Author has the publishing rights for this image

Silence and Blank Stares

Have you ever noticed that meeting participants withhold what they believe? From employee interviews and focus groups that I conducted, executives to individual contributors often the employee silence phenomenon to varying degrees. They made statements like the following:

  • When I was honest with my VP, he threw a fit! That was the last time I warned him about a cultural issue.
  • I didn’t want to hurt my manager’s feelings, so I said, “Everything’s fine.”
  • My manager would say, “I want your honest feedback,” but the silent message was, “not really.”
  • As soon as I voiced concern, my director would challenge everything I said. He was relentless. He described our exchange as “healthy talks.” I thought of them as taking a mental beating.
  • Be honest with my boss? No, I don’t need the stress.

Psychological Safety and Vulnerability-Based Trust

Rather than at the individual level, psychological safety occurs at the team level. Cognitively, team members believe that their questions, comments, and suggestions are received fairly and perceived as valuable, even when they don’t lead to an execution, task, or change. Behaviorally, when someone asks questions or expresses an opinion, the team inquires for clarification and understanding. This also can be observed as a debate without the…

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