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Psychological safety: Crack the work behavior code

3-minute read

November 29, 2022

Fear vs. trust. Apathy vs. engagement.  

Which one would you choose? 

Trust, engagement, purpose, courage. These positive emotions and attitudes make a workplace come alive and make people feel valued. Most leaders are eager to cultivate an environment where these feelings can thrive. But they might not realize the complexity of fostering true psychological safety. 

That’s because it’s not just about nurturing positivity—it’s about making a safe space for people to manage negative emotions as well. Stress, disagreements, resentments, fear and other less-than-sunny feelings will inevitably surface on the job; having the space to work them out without judgment helps employees cope and move past them.

Besides, no good leader should want employees who are afraid to be honest. After all, people closer to the ground often have a better view of business problems and potential solutions. 

Psychological safety is the ability to speak up at work, without fearing that you will be humiliated or sanctioned for your honesty.

AMY C. EDMONDSON / Professor of Leadership and Management at HBS

Amid economic uncertainty, businesses are hoping to maintain momentum and growth through productive and innovative work environments. 

Companies across the board face the same market pressures—worker shortages, attracting the best people, competitive innovation pressure and solving the hybrid-work puzzle. Psychological safety may turn out to be the most powerful driver for business agility, resilience and innovation.

Build a digital twin of human behavior

AI and data have been used with much success to build digital versions of real-life objects to simulate a range of situations. These include testing materials' resistance to various stressors, or creating energy optimization scenarios for buildings.

What if you could use behavioral science to build digital twins of people and teams to assess how they operate under stress—and learn how to help them perform better together?

Accenture’s digital analytics tool—InsightScan—anonymously establishes the level of engagement among team members. A five-minute survey determines which of the four zones of psychological safety apply.

Of the four zones, “flow” is the optimal one for teams. Coined by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow is a state where people are fully immersed and engaged in the activity at hand, be it work or fun, which makes them lose all sense of time. Since 1975, flow has been studied in various contexts. This unique state is indispensable to creativity, productivity and innovation.
In contrast, people in the “apathy” zone are disengaged, “quiet quitting,” or perhaps looking to leave the company. Especially in a recession, apathy is a disadvantage in the market: With disengaged teams, you can’t make good decisions and, in turn, will feel market hits more acutely and recover more slowly.

Matrix displaying psychological safety vs motivational drivers

5 tips for establishing psychological safety

Psychological safety helps teams become more resilient, agile and innovative. Here are a few tips to get your people into the flow zone:

1. A two-way relationship

During the past tumultuous years, empathetic and responsible leaders have emerged as the ones who have managed uncertainty and change best. But, at this point, empathy is a minimal requirement. Leaders set the tone for the entire culture of the organization and are responsible for establishing trust. But trust is not a one-way street; it is a two-way relationship. Trust is needed to create autonomy, build courage and enable growth moments in the leader-employee relationship. In a relationship built on trust, teams can reach their full potential.

2. Champion transparency

Conflicts can’t be avoided, but they can be handled effectively. Leaders need to be open, transparent and intervene before fear or negativity spreads. In fact, negative emotions move much faster than positive emotions and attitudes. Leaders can use data on psychological safety to anticipate these effects and be better prepared to inspire courage and openness. They also can start difficult conversations that redirect the emotional charge of the organization.

3. Train for a sprint and a marathon

Psychological safety is active and dynamic. It’s also multidimensional. Different parts of the organization may feel safe or unsafe at the same time. In psychologically safe organizations, there will always be dips, with teams moving from the flow zone into other zones. For example, when one critical milestone is achieved and team members recover from an intense period of delivery, you don’t have to wait years to achieve a significant transformation. Small changes compound over time and can make a big impact. Cultivating psychological safety must become a long-term practice for the company. Plan checks and interventions now, but also have a long-term strategy based on challenges you solved and lessons you learned.

4. Account for behavioral diversity

Psychological safety becomes even more important in the ever-expanding context of globalization, where teams are diverse. What constitutes psychological safety also depends on geography. With varied cultures, languages and societal rules, conflict will manifest differently. How prepared are you to defuse a conflict involving people on the same team from different countries, of different ethnicities and who speak different languages?

5. Plan and train for psychological safety in all workplaces

Virtual work environments have different rules around building trust and safety. For example, in an in-person environment, physical presence and body language can foster connections and build trust. In a virtual environment, social cues can be more challenging to assess and cameras (on or off) have pros and cons. In this medium, trust should be established in different ways and through different related channels. Leaders and teams can benefit from additional coaching to establish trust and psychological safety in hybrid environments. 

Two women talking around a table

A psychological spin on the future of work

Psychological safety is critical for the future of work, especially as people adjust their expectations for work and for life. It has never been more important for people to feel safe and valued at work. Luckily, businesses can use the power of data to uncover new—and sometimes surprising—insights into team dynamics. Ultimately, this will enable businesses to take the steps needed to build psychological safety at work and maintain growth via productive and engaged teams. 


Ilhan Scheer

Managing Director – Talent & Organization