6 real-life examples proving psychological safety is crucial

two team members interacting in a workplace have developed psychological safety

If you’re reading this, you may have noticed that finding concrete, real examples of psychological safety is hard.

That’s because the idea of creating a healthy work environment, where employees don’t fear punishment, has become a buzzword recently. But, there’s still a gap between the term 'psychological safety' and the behaviors that create it.

And this isn’t helpful for people who are trying to foster psychological safety within teams.

Often, companies that have a psychological safety problem don’t realize it. Instead, they’ll notice its symptoms. This can be employees making frequent mistakes (because they were scared to speak up to prevent any accidents). There may be a lack of innovation (because no one wants to take risks and be punished for failures). Or, there is high employee turnover (because people want to work in a place where they feel safe).

To help you better understand psychological safety, we’ve gathered examples from real companies that have created psychological safety for their workforce.

Read on to learn the details of psychological safety, including; what it is, the four different types, and how to create it. Plus, we offer a free people analytics tool that can do a deep dive into your team culture. We also have a tool to understand each individual’s work motivations so you can improve performance all round.

But first, a definition.

Table of contents
What is psychological safety?
What are the 4 types of psychological safety?
Why is psychological safety important?
What are some examples of psychological safety?
14 ways to create psychological safety in your workplace
How to use F4S to foster psychological safety at work
Don’t forget to focus on mental health
What does 'mental health' actually mean?
What does this mean for work?
Final thoughts on psychological safety for high performing teams

What is psychological safety?

Amy C. Edmondson, the Harvard researcher who coined the term 'psychological safety,' defines it as:  "a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking." 1

What are the 4 types of psychological safety?

Organizational anthropologist Timothy R. Clark further developed this definition in his book, The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety in which he wrote of four types of psychological safety. 2 These include:

1. Inclusion safety

Inclusion safety is when people feel free to be who they really are, because they know they’ll be accepted and celebrated on their teams just by showing up as their authentic selves.

2. Learner safety

You create learner safety by having an environment where no question is seen as 'dumb.' This allows team members to feel free to explore, question and go through the learning process without fear of looking stupid.

3. Contributor safety

Teams with contributor safety empower their team members with autonomy, guidance and encouragement so they can make meaningful contributions to their company and the world.

4. Challenger safety

Challenger allows employees to challenge the status quo for the sake of improvement. This type of psychological safety helps to keep your company innovative because every team member knows they can talk about tough issues and provide constructive feedback so that things can get better.

Does psychological safety matter?

Yes! Google's Project Aristotle found psychological safety to be one of the five critical ingredients to building a high-performing team. When Google uses its massive resources to study the effect of something on team performance, and finds it to be 'critical', you can absolutely bet that it's something you should be prioritizing on your team.

Why is psychological safety important?

Here are some other benefits of psychological safety as proven by research:

It reduces accidents and mistakes

It may seem counterintuitive, but when employees feel free to make honest mistakes without fear of punishment, they actually make fewer of them! A psychologically safe workplace can experience 40% fewer safety incidents.3

It encourages innovation

One study of 328 team members found a positive link between psychological safety and creativity.4  This makes sense, as innovation and creativity require risk taking, and people won’t take risks unless they feel psychologically safe.

It boosts productivity

When teams feel free to talk candidly about potential issues in a project, it can help them perform. Gallup found that psychological safety boosts productivity by 12%.3

It improves employee retention

Gallup also found that companies with psychological safety, specifically the type where employees feel that they can speak up and that their voice matters, have a 27% lower employee turnover.3

What are some examples of psychological safety?

To help you better understand this crucial workplace concept, let’s look at some real-life examples of psychological safety at various companies.

1. Google’s 20% time

It’s no surprise that Google, one of the companies whose research confirmed the importance of psychological safety in healthy teams, also implements practices to instill psychological safety in its workplace.

A famous example of this is its '20% time', which is where employees are encouraged (but not required) to work on side projects that fall outside of their job description.

How does this instill psychological safety? It’s a great example of learner safety because it promotes experimentation so people are free to explore, try new things and take risks without being humiliated or punished.

And yes, it contributes to innovation! Famous Google products that resulted from 20% projects include Gmail and Google Maps.5

2. NASA’s Safety Culture program

In some professions, a lack of psychological safety can have devastating effects. One example that Harvard researcher Amy C. Edmondson mentions in her book The Fearless Organization is the Columbia disaster in 2003, when NASA’s space shuttle disintegrated while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven people on board.

Two weeks before that tragedy happened, one engineer did have concerns about the shuttle but didn’t speak up about it during a meeting.

Later, NASA formed the Safety Culture program to provide “a platform for the NASA community to voice safety concerns without repercussion”.7 This is an example of challenger safety, where team members feel safe to disagree or suggest something different without fear of retribution.

3. Buffer’s decision to do away with a probationary period

For years, social media software company Buffer has instituted Buffer Bootcamp, a 45-day probationary period for all new team members. Initially, it felt like an excellent way for both the employer and employee to try each other out and ensure they were a good fit before committing. Buffer even offered a full payout for the whole 45 days if the employee decided to leave early.

But in 2017, the company decided to do away with Buffer Bootcamp.8 Why? They realized that this probationary period was having a negative impact on their team’s psychological safety.

As Courtney Seiter explains on the Buffer blog: “A 45-day probationary period is a big risk, especially for those who left other jobs to join Buffer. If teammates felt insecure and ‘on guard’ for their first 6 weeks, we likely missed out on their candid thoughts and big, risky ideas”.

4. Unqork's DEI practices

Here’s an example of inclusion safety: Enterprise software company Unqork operationalizes diversity, equity and inclusion by making it a part of their interview process9. They ask DEI-based questions to ensure they hire people who have bought into creating safe spaces for people from all backgrounds. Unqork also hosts trust-and-respect-building sessions for leaders every month to help create an inclusive culture.

5. oak9’s practice of establishing clear goals

Did you know OKRs can help you fight micromanagement? Eliminating leadership’s need to control their direct reports is a huge part of contributor safety because team members want to feel empowered and safe to contribute meaningful work to their organization. This is especially true of today’s more remote teams, where managers may feel the pull to overcompensate for a lack of trust by micromanaging the team members they cannot see.

One example of contributor safety is cloud-security company oak9’s practice of establishing clear goals.10 For new hires, they discuss projects and goals for their first 30, 60 and 90 days. They also ensure each department clearly communicates what the end goal is for specific projects.

By doing this, you can nip micromanagement in the bud because while you all agree on what 'done' looks like, you still trust your employees to figure out the 'how' of getting there.

6. Achievers’ use of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

Employee recognition platform Achievers creates inclusion safety by offering various ERGs to help employees feel a sense of belonging and connection based on their different life experiences. These groups range from those with specific identities (and those who support them), such as the women’s ERG, to specific interests, such as the wellness ERG.

What’s more, 2023 Workhuman research found that employees in ERGs experience higher levels of psychological safety.6

Writing for Quartz, Achievers CHRO Hannah Yardley explains: “Upon joining Achievers, it quickly became one of the first places I felt I could authentically show up as myself. I didn’t feel guilty for trying to get home early to see my kids or taking much-needed, proper time away. This was only possible because I felt safe enough to do so and welcomed to share my challenges and needs”.

14 ways to create psychological safety in your workplace

We hope those examples of psychological safety give you ideas for your workplace. But if you need, here are some more tips for creating a psychologically safe team.

  1. Be a person and remember others are people too. When you’re engaging, speak to that person as a person, not a ‘boss’. I always remind myself this person is doing the best they can, so I do the same.
  2. Learn 'calm' team management techniques that will help keep your team safe, supported and feeling level-headed, even in the worst of times. If these strategies don't come naturally to you (and for many leaders they don't,) be sure to practice and try not to slide back into your 'everything is an emergency' habit when the going gets tough. You (and your team) will appreciate the effort.
  3. Plan ahead and talk in terms of other people's interests. I learned from Dale Carnegie (many years ago) to talk in terms of how other people want to hear things. They immediately join with you rather than feel like they’re being attacked or singled out. You can use F4S to measure how each person on your team prefers to be spoken to, which will make it much easier to connect.
  4. Conflict is not a dirty word! Conflict is just different opinions and that difference is what creates new products/ideas and ways of doing things. Conflict can be harnessed to create greatness. If you can change your view of conflict and approach it as an opportunity to collaborate with others, you’ll get good results.
  5. Take responsibility and ask questions. If someone overreacts then don’t fire back or level blame at them. Ask questions, understand why they’ve responded the way they have.
  6. Seek feedback. As much as you can! I routinely ask for feedback from customers, my team, my peers, even my children! I know I’m a better person for it. But be ready to really 'hear' what others are saying; don’t just defend yourself.
  7. Measure safety in your workplace. What gets measured gets done! There are some great tools to help you do this now, so you can get data that can be actioned. Pioneera’s Indie can help here too.
  8. Have a routine. Establishing routines helps our mind stay healthy.
  9. Be flexible. Things will happen that you least expect, so be flexible when that happens.
  10. Have a comfortable work space. No working from bed or the sofa! A space that is just for work will help your focus and be productive and will also help you switch off when you're finished.
  11. Limit distractions. Kids, washing, Whatsapp, neighbors, the list goes on! Turn off your social media notifications, treat it like you would at the office and be productive when you’re working.
  12. Stay connected with your team socially. Virtual coffee anyone? Technology is a wonderful tool to help us stay connected even if we’re isolated at home. Use Google hangouts, Microsoft teams or Zoom to chat with your friends and see their smiling faces. Connection keeps us healthy.
  13. Take regular breaks. We don’t have the incidental coffee runs now, so make time to get up and stretch and walk around. Every hour is a good start.
  14. Stop work at the end of the day. With work at home, it's tempting to just keep working. Having a ritual where you transition from work to home life is a good way to do this. It might be a five-minute meditation, a cup of tea on the deck or a run around the block with the dog. Our minds love rituals and as soon as you start doing it, it will signal to your brain that work is over and you can relax.

We need extra energy and cognitive power to deal with the level of uncertainty that large-scale events bring, so now more than ever we need to be looking after our mind as well as body.

Putting some routine and intention into how you work from home will definitely help. And if you’re a leader, it’s your responsibility to encourage your team to implement these habits, and actually 'walk the walk' yourself.

How to use F4S to foster psychological safety at work

F4S is a powerful people analytics platform based on more than 20 years of research. The F4S assessment provides detailed data on 48 traits that motivate your employees and helps you use that information to build an effective team. By knowing, for example, the communication style of your employees, you can adjust your interactions to create better understanding.

F4S team dashboard shows and ranks team motivations
F4S team dashboard

You can also set up a team to observe affinities and differences as well as understand the team dynamic to create a psychologically safe environment.

Accelerate understanding between teams

Breadth

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Motivated by macro big picture thinking, these teammates value moving quickly to connect dots between abstract ideas to 'get the gist' of things.

Chart showing rage from Average, High and Ver High.

vs

Depth

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These teammates value being concrete and specific, getting into details to understand the steps or tasks required.

Chart showing rage from Average, High and Ver High.

See the different work styles in your team

Take the free assessment & set up your team

On top of that, you’ll gain access to AI-powered Coach Marlee, which can guide you through how to become more emotionally intelligent and build stronger teams. This all will help you to create a psychologically safe environment where your people can be themselves and perform their best.

Don’t forget to focus on mental health

For a long time, people didn’t speak out about mental health for fear of judgment and discrimination. This was particularly relevant in the workplace. If it was perceived you couldn’t cope, your career prospects started to diminish.

These days, mental health and support for positive mental health is much stronger. This is due to two reasons:

  1. Popular figures are being brave and talking about it, so we see it’s normal and OK. If that superstar has it, then it’s OK for me to have it. We’ve seen celebrities from across the film and music industry, business tycoons and everyday people talk out about their struggles with mental health issues.
  2. Rising instances of mental health issues in communities and our workplaces. In some cases, it's rising at an alarming rate. This has forced businesses to start looking for ways to support the mental health of their employees, as much as they support the physical health of their people. Remember all the ergonomic assessments we had to do to make sure our workstations and desk were set up properly and that we lifted boxed safely? Well, the same applies to our mental health today.

What does 'mental health' actually mean?

Let’s deal with that whopping elephant in the room, shall we? What does mental health actually mean?

The Oxford Dictionary says that mental health is “a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) takes it a step further when it defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.

We love both of these definitions at Pioneera. Oxford states it very simply and clearly and WHO puts mental health into everyday action by realizing potential and contributing to the community.

If we take the WHO definition and apply it to our lives and workplaces you can start to understand why we have the myriad of wellbeing terms listed at the start of this article.

Psychological safety, mental health, employee wellbeing, positive mindset, healthy living, mindfulness – every single one of these areas is designed to help you realize your potential and contribute to your community, by having healthy psychological and emotional wellbeing. They all do it in different ways.

What does this mean for work?

At Pioneera, we focus on two key areas within the workplace: stress management and psychological safety. They affect each other and work hand in hand to create workplaces and jobs that we love.

Stress at work: the good and the bad

Organizational stress management is one of the fastest-growing focus areas in mental health. Rising sick and stress leave and drops in productivity are all linked to workplace stress.

Short bursts of stress help us be productive and achieve our goals. But our stress levels become dangerous when chronic.

Chronic stress is prolonged periods of stress – where you are constantly stressed and there is no recovery. This level of stress brings a range of health issues, which negatively affects individual and company performance.

We know from medical professionals that prevention is better than cure when it comes to stress. All the health tips I mentioned before are necessary to manage your stress levels and return to wellness when you experience stress. This includes a mind and body focus.

Take responsibility for your team's stress levels

It’s very important to know when your team is stressed so you can help them recover from stress quickly and effectively. Tools such as Pioneera’s Indie, helps you do that immediately in a safe and confidential manner.

Psychological safety is as it sounds – it’s the belief that you are safe in your workplace. Safe to do your role without fear of punishment for making a mistake. Safe to bring your whole self to work. Safe that you won’t be attacked at your desk or in a difficult team meeting.

If we feel threatened then we’re more likely to withdraw, only do the essentials to get our job done and not take risks. Creativity is lost, problem-solving is diminished and our organization eventually starts to wither and die.

Final thoughts on psychological safety for high performing teams

Psychological safety is the foundation for high-performing teams and all of the above can be done at an individual, team and organizational level. It starts with one person and if enough people focus on building and demonstrating psychological safety, then it becomes part of the organization's culture and you’re on the way to excellence. Because really, a psychologically safe culture is a culture based on mutual trust and respect.

By reviewing these examples of psychological safety, you can see that real companies are instituting these practices because they see the immense good in them. We hope that inspires you to create psychologically safe environments for your team.

Could you imagine how much we would all love our workplaces and jobs if we felt safe and worked in an inclusive space?

And wouldn't that mean we could achieve more than we thought possible?

It’s a dream we all share.

And before you ask it, yes ALL of these things can be done remotely or when you’re working from home. We can still create psychological safety in our organizations, our homes and our lives.

Many believe our work lives have changed forever, not just in the location of work, but how we work. Time will tell if that is the case. But our foundational needs as humans will not change. We’ll continue to need safety to be our best and to achieve our best.

As leaders, it's our responsibility to get started right now.

This article was written by Danielle Owen Whitford, the Founder & CEO of Pioneera, who uses technology to tackle the crippling issue of workplace stress and psychological safety. Pioneera’s world-first 'spell checker for stress’ approach, uses AI and psychology to predict and prevent workplace stress.

To foster psychological safety among employees, you have to understand them

F4S can help you understand your team’s unique motivations at work. Our free F4S assessment unlocks insights into 48 different traits that motivate employees – and it’s all backed by 20-plus years of research. Equipped with this, you can ensure each team member's most critical needs are met, which is essential to creating a safe and fulfilling work environment where your team can thrive.

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1. https://amycedmondson.com/psychological-safety/

2. https://www.leaderfactor.com/post/the-4-stages-of-psychological-safety

3. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/236198/create-culture-psychological-safety.aspx

4. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01727/full

5. https://mashable.com/video/google-20-percent-rule

6. https://www.workhuman.com/resources/globoforce-blog/human-workplace-index-gauging-the-impact-of-employee-resource-groups-ergs

7. https://sma.nasa.gov/news/articles/newsitem/2019/11/21/nasa-s-journey-to-safety-culture

8. https://buffer.com/resources/45-day-period/

9. https://www.builtinnyc.com/2023/01/31/how-2-nyc-companies-foster-psychological-safety-workplace

10. https://www.builtinchicago.org/2023/01/18/cure-micromanagement-tech-leaders-share-strategies

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