What is psychological safety and why does it matter?

What is psychological safety and why does it matter?

One of the key drivers of Wellbeing in teams is how psychologically safe the team culture feels. Psychological safety is defined by Amy Edmonson as “the shared belief by team members that the team environment is a safe one in which to take interpersonal risks, to offer new or left-field ideas, and to admit mistakes without fear of humiliation or negative consequences”.

It is important to note that psychological safety is not just assumed by the leader or a handful of the more senior or confident team members. The whole team must feel a sense of psychological safety, and the team is only as safe as its least safe team member.

Far from ‘playing it safe’ psychological safety promotes trust, confidence, curiosity, resilience, perseverance and motivation. It can determine how willing team members are to contribute their full value. Crucially, psychological safety is essential for Wellbeing.

Anecdotally, we know that remote working can challenge people’s sense of psychological safety. Communication is harder in virtual teams, and cohesion can suffer as a result. Without being able to see and chat informally to colleagues and without serendipitous opportunities to bounce ideas around, team members can be left wondering what they might be missing out on, or less clear about their place in their team. Of course there are additional challenges brought by COVID-19, such as interrupted family and social relationships, financial and job insecurity.

When we look at the impact of COVID-19, we see that a sizeable majority of people reported that their work conditions have changed substantially. For most people that has meant working mostly or entirely from home. Three-quarters of respondents of a recent survey reported that these changes had an overall negative impact. This was especially so for women, who also reported more negative impacts, particularly in terms of psychological safety. Hearteningly, over 70% of people believed wellbeing was more important now than ever.

We frequently think of wellbeing as the ‘glue’ that maintains cohesion in teams. That being the case, psychological safety is a key ingredient in this glue.

Creating a sense of connection and belonging is even more important during times of crisis, and when teams are working remotely.

Cultivate the twin mindsets of humility and curiosity. We know that psychologically safe teams are comfortable admitting mistakes, they learn from failure, they share ideas more openly, and they make more robust and innovative ideas. Remember that you don’t have to have all the answers. Listen without judging, and ask, don’t assume.

Do continue to be cognisant of the impact of unconscious biases on our thinking and decision-making. Remember bias is more likely when we’re stressed and in uncertain times.

Sense check your thinking and decision-making for bias, ask a colleague to help hold you accountable.

For leaders, we often talk about the importance of perspective switching when it comes to wellbeing – to put yourself in the shoes of your least ‘well or engaged’ team member. Psychological safety is no different – make sure you understand the challenges and needs of every team member when it comes to working remotely.

Communicate clearly and often, more often than usual. Without line of sight and spontaneous opportunities to chat and interact with people, team members risk feeling “out of the loop”. This generates insecurity and disengagement.

Shift your mindset – more than ever you will be measured on your outputs, not your hours. Take the initiative to choose how to schedule your time for optimal productivity. You have more freedom than before, but also more responsibility for your work. Make sure your colleagues have reasonable expectations of your availability.


Do set boundaries. Working from home should not mean ‘always on’.

Author: Milo-Arne Wilkinson

Milo-Arne Wilkinson has 7 degrees in the areas of forensic psychology, neuroscience, organisational psychology and psychotherapy.

She is a behavioural scientist, psychologist, performance coach and has recently completed a world first co-design project with Harvard University Neuroscience Department.   She supports Elite Athletes, C-Level Executives and HR Departments to perform at their optimum.

She specialises in Employee wellbeing and has worked with some of the worlds most successful organisations. You can book Milo to help inspire your employees via Wellbetter.


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