The Enemies of Psychological Safety

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The Fall of Aristotle

Though recent events like the Great Reshuffle helped emphasize the necessity of psychological safety, the concept has existed since the 1960s and saw a resurgence when researcher Amy Edmonson detailed its significance back in 1999. Edmonson and Jeff Polzer’s celebrated paper along with Google’s renowned Project Aristotle in 2012 suddenly launched the key ingredients of team success to the front and center of organizational consciousness. Many of those ingredients—trust, vulnerability, clarity—all seem obvious now. In short, people respond better when they’re treated like human beings.

Yet, as outlined here on SurePeople evolve, Google, the illustrious champion of psychological safety, has since seemingly forgotten those ingredients and found itself in a series of staff protests and even a global employee walkout in recent years. Google wasn’t alone in this sudden neglect of psychological safety. Delineated here by HR consultant Catherine Mattice, disastrous events like Boeing’s 737 Max crashes and Wells Fargo’s fake accounts scandal can all be linked to the absence of psychological safety.

Why then, despite its long popularity and much praise, does psychological safety fail? We’ve seen recurrent cases exemplifying the merits of human-centric leadership, most recently conveyed by Apple’s acclaimed series Ted Lasso. Nonetheless, as outlined in this recent study published by BMC Health Services Research, psychological safety falls victim to rigid hierarchies, authoritarian leadership, and fear of expression—all contributing reasons behind the Great Reshuffle.

Depicted in further work by Edmonson, personality also plays a role in the success or failure of psychological safety and team wellbeing. Demanding that everyone adheres to our preferences affects team wellbeing. At the other end of such a powerful personality, those who constantly overanalyze and worry about what others think of them similarly affect morale—of themselves and others. Our individual personalities, along with the personalities of our teammates and team leaders—each with myriad nuances illustrated in this video of the Prism® Portrait—impact how we all experience workplace wellbeing.

This is how psychological safety fails in teams and organizations. It fails when we refuse to bridge personality divides within our teams and instead retreat into the antiquated belief that results matter more than the people who produce them.

Psychological safety fails when we fail the people around us.

“A team is not a group of people who work together. A team is a group of people who trust each other.” – Simon Sinek

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