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Psychological safety: Crack the work behavior code


December 6, 2022

Fear vs. trust. Apathy vs. engagement. Which one would you choose? Trust, engagement, purpose, courage, these are all positive emotions and attitudes that can make the workplace come alive. They also make people feel safe and valued at work. Psychological safety is about creating the environment for these positive emotions to thrive, but it is also about making a safe space to manage other kinds of negative emotions. Negative emotions will inevitably surface in a work environment and psychological safety makes room for these emotions as well, so they can be sorted out.

As Amy C. Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard’s Business School explains, psychological safety is the ability to speak up at work, without fearing that you will be humiliated or sanctioned for your honesty.

In the current economic uncertainty, businesses are relying on maintaining momentum and growth through productive and innovative work environments. As companies across the board are under the same market pressures—such as worker shortages and attracting the best people, competitive innovation pressure, or figuring out the remote/on-site work puzzle—psychological safety may turn out to be the most powerful driver for business agility, resilience and innovation.

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, such as 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 to learn how to help them perform better together?

Accenture’s digital analytics tool—InsightScan—anonymously establishes the level of engagement among team members. This 5-minute survey determines which of the four zones of psychological safety apply.

The four zones of psychological safety

Psychological Safety
Psychological Safety

People can find themselves in challenging situations such as in the apathy zone but there is hope and opportunity to move out of apathy into the flow zone. 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 and found indispensable to creativity, productivity and innovation. In contrast, in the “apathy” state people are disengaged and showing up at work in an absent way, or they are looking to leave the company. Recently, media has made this phenomenon breaking news, calling it “quiet quitting,” when people stay with a company, or “the Great Resignation,” when they leave. Especially in a recession, apathy means a disadvantage in the market: if you have disengaged teams, you cannot make good decisions and you fall behind; you feel market hits more acutely and experience a slower recovery.

5 tips to establish psychological safety

Psychological safety helps teams become more resilient, agile and innovative. Here are a few tips to get your teams on the path of psychological safety:

1. The north star of relationships between leaders and employees

During the past tumultuous years, empathetic and responsible leaders have emerged as the ones that have managed uncertainty and change best. But, at this point, empathy is merely the baseline to move forward. 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 cannot be avoided, but they can be handled better. Leaders need to be open, transparent and intervene before fear or negativity spreads. Fear and negativity appear in many workplaces and—they spread like wildfire—moving 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, starting difficult conversations that can redirect the emotional charge of the organization.

3. Train for a sprint and a marathon

Psychological safety is active and dynamic. It is 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. 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 that you solved and lessons 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 conflict involving people on the same team from different countries, of different ethnicities, 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 raise oxytocin levels and build trust. In a virtual environment, social clues can be more challenging to assess and cameras on or off can have both pros and cons. In this medium, trust should be established in different ways and through different related channels. What works in-person, does not necessarily work in remote settings. Leaders and teams can benefit from additional coaching to establish trust and psychological safety.

A time for change

Psychological safety is critical for the future of work, especially as people adjust their expectations for work, and life. In these times of economic uncertainty, 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 their growth through a productive and innovative work environment.


Ilhan Scheer

Managing Director – Talent & Organization